What Took the Minnesota Timberwolves so Long to Discover Gorgui Dieng?

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What Took the Minnesota Timberwolves so Long to Discover Gorgui Dieng?
LM Otero/Associated Press

Gorgui Dieng has been an absolute revelation for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they try to survive the pesky injury imp and stay mathematically alive in the race for No. 8 in the Western Conference. 

But what took so long? 

Dieng only played minimally during the vast majority of his rookie season, and it wasn't until necessity forced Rick Adelman's hand that he stepped into the starting lineup. It took Nikola Pekovic dealing with an ankle injury and Ronny Turiaf's knee acting up, because at that point, there just weren't any other options at Minnesota's disposal. 

So Dieng it was, and he played so well that the 'Wolves coaching staff had to be left saying only one thing: "Dieng it, what took us so long to play him?"

I'm only assuming those words escaped the lips of someone on the sidelines of the Target Center, but they probably sum up the non-uttered thoughts. The Louisville product has been that good during his three-game stint. 

 

Tearing it Up Lately

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Going into this three-game stint as the team's starting center, Dieng hadn't exactly made much of an impact off the bench. He was averaging only 1.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.3 steals and 0.5 blocks per game while shooting just 42.6 percent from the field. Even if you translate those numbers into per-36-minute stats, they aren't too impressive—9.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks are the highlights. 

There just wasn't much indication of an impending explosion. Rates don't generally tend to be maintained when jumping from 6.5 minutes per game to nearly 34. 

And with Dieng, they weren't maintained. 

He improved on them. 

Since becoming a starter, the Louisville product has done nothing but impress and set records, as the Minnesota PR Twitter feed makes perfectly clear: 

He's averaged 14.7 points, 14.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.0 blocks per game when receiving the opportunity to corral the opening tip, and he's shooting 57.1 percent from the field. 

"I was just ready to play. I don’t care if you’re up or down, as long as I am on the court. I’m just trying to play for my teammates and do my job," Dieng told Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal after his third consecutive double-double. "We lost tonight, but I think I gave everything I had when I was on the floor. I always say stats don’t mean anything. Personal stats, I don’t care anything about. I’m more like a team guy and I want to win."

Even if that quote came after a loss to the Houston Rockets, the 'Wolves have still gone 2-1 since he stepped into the starting lineup to replace an injured Pekovic. And the team has looked quite good with him on the court, a statement that applies to both ends of the floor. 

From a team perspective, Dieng's highlight in the starting five has been helping spark a road victory over the Dallas Mavericks, one in which Minnesota outscored Dirk Nowitzki and Co. by 15 points when he was on the floor. 

But from an individual perspective, Dieng's 22-point, 21-rebound masterpiece against the Rockets can't help but stand out. 

According to Basketball-Reference, only 13 different players have recorded a 20/20 game during the 2013-14 campaign. And any guesses how many also recorded four assists during their monstrous outing? 

Just three: Dieng, Jared Sullinger and Tobias Harris. 

In fact, only 25 players in the past decade have managed to meet or top those numbers in the past decade, once more per Basketball-Reference

The former Cardinal hasn't just served as a stopgap player during the past three games; he's looked like a burgeoning star. So what took the 'Wolves so long to discover him? 

 

Rick Adelman Hates Rookies

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The head coach in Minnesota does a fantastic job in some areas, but he's notoriously hesitant to hand over opportunities to first-year players. Ending up on the 'Wolves is essentially a death knell to a player's Rookie of the Year hopes and dreams, even if there's definitely a chance for improvement later on. 

Rick Adelman has been the head coach for Minnesota over the last three years, and just take a look at the amount of playing time and success rookies have experienced under him: 

Rookie Woes
Player Pick Number Year MPG PER
Shabazz Muhammad No. 14 2013 7.5 10.9
Gorgui Dieng No. 21 2013 8.3 14.9
Robbie Hummel No. 58 2012 10.3 8.4
Derrick Williams No. 2 2011 21.5 12.9
Malcolm Lee No. 43 2011 12.8 9.3

Basketball-Reference

There are a couple of egregious sections in that table, which would look even worse if I'd included the numbers rookies had posted during his tenures with teams before joining the Minnesota organization. Notable this season is Shabazz Muhammad, who has labored away off the bench and spent significant portions of the year in the D-League. 

As Phil Mackey explains for 1500ESPN.com, this isn't exactly justifiable:

29: The number of rookies who have played more minutes than Shabazz Muhammad this season.

Now, Shabazz's breakout game in Phoenix on Wednesday could have been a blip on the radar. This isn't to say he's the next Dwyane Wade. The jury is still way out.

But answer this for me: On what planet are the Wolves good enough to stash the 14th overall pick on the bench for the first three-and-a-half months of the season?

Corey Brewer. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Dante Cunningham. Robbie Hummel. And to some degree, Alexey Shved. All run-of-the-mill, largely replaceable entities with very little upside. Not to mention, the Wolves' bench is one of the worst in the NBA by almost any measurement -- 29th in field goal percentage, 29th in efficiency rating and 26th in scoring (per 48 minutes).

Since Mackey wrote that at the end of February, the number of rookies who have played more minutes than Muhammad has risen to 39. 

Jack Arent/Getty Images

It's something addressed by Steve Carp, who wrote the following about the former UCLA standout for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "He also was at the mercy of Rick Adelman, a veteran coach who is hesitant to give rookies a significant role. And with the revamped Timberwolves management in win-now mode, Adelman didn’t have the luxury to play Muhammad and live with his mistakes."

But how about Derrick Williams? 

Part of the reason the No. 2 pick never developed is that Adelman treated him with a very short leash. He never let Williams develop on the court, and he often placed the Arizona product in situations that weren't exactly conducive to success. 

It should be quite telling that Williams moved to the Sacramento Kings this season and immediately started looking like a different—read: better—player. 

Escaping the bench is difficult when Adelman controls it. Dieng just wasn't an exception to the rule until necessity forced his coach's hand. 

 

Is This a Legitimate Development? 

David Sherman/Getty Images

Remember that Dieng was only starting due to the dearth of other options. With Pekovic's ankle and Turiaf's knee keeping them out of action, he was the only reasonable choice, as Adelman probably wanted to avoid having Kevin Love suit up as a center and be forced into protecting the rim on a regular basis. 

But Pek is going to be back soon. 

Per Aaron Bruski of Rotoworld (h/t Yahoo! Sports), he's already traveling with the team, and there's a chance he'll be able to resume his starting gig March 23 against the Phoenix Suns (though Nate Sandell of 1500ESPN.com does report he is "doubtful" for Sunday's game). And when that happens, there's no way Adelman is going to keep Dieng ahead of him during the stretch run of a season that hasn't yet seen Minnesota mathematically eliminated from the playoff race. 

Lest we forget, Pekovic is an established NBA center who often plays like he's on the verge of being able to make an All-Star team. He's still averaging 17.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game this season, and those are numbers that Dieng probably won't be able to maintain over the course of a larger sample size. 

Additionally, NBA.com's Mark Remme reveals that the Louisville product benefited from matchup advantages: 

He’s gotten a few breaks matchup-wise in these three games—Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Houston’s Dwight Howard were both injured and didn’t play against the Wolves this week—but to his credit Dieng has taken advantage of their absences and hasn’t gotten himself into a ton of foul trouble. In two of his last three games, he’s played at least 37 minutes. Adelman said that’s a testament to Dieng’s focus and work ethic—he hadn’t been getting a lot of run on the court prior to Pekovic’s injury, but he kept his body ready and was able to jump in and play big minutes at the NBA level when called upon.

However, that doesn't mean Dieng's sudden development and ascension to prominence was illegitimate. 

This is, after all, a 24-year-old rookie we're talking about, one who still has a bit of potential left in the tank. He never displayed inordinate amounts of upside during his career at Louisville, and it's unlikely he ever turns into a star player in the Association. But few players do. 

Is Dieng here to stay?

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The big man's offensive arsenal is still quite limited, and it seems more likely that he'll be a defensive stalwart and rebounding specialist than a guy who can consistently carry the offensive burden for the frontcourt.

Unless he develops a mid-range jumper, of course. That was a solid part of his game under Rick Pitino, but for whatever reason, his offense has been completely devoid of work outside the paint during his rookie season in the Association. Reincorporating that, whether through practice in an empty gym or simply reminding himself he should have the confidence to take those looks is key. 

Even over the course of three games against relatively lackluster competition, Dieng showed that he can be a quality starting center. At the very least, he displayed enough that Adelman—yes, even Adelman—should be confident in his ability to provide valuable minutes off the bench on a nightly basis. 

Not bad for a late first-round pick from one of the weakest drafts in recent memory. 

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