Why Gorgui Dieng's Breakout Should Be Taken Seriously

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Why Gorgui Dieng's Breakout Should Be Taken Seriously
David Sherman/Getty Images

Nikola Pekovic who?

OK, Gorgui Dieng hasn't inspired a new hit television series entitled Nikola Pekovic: The Forgotten Ice Fisher just yet, but the Minnesota Timberwolves rookie has left himself impossible to ignore.

Buried on one of the league's worst benches and tethered to head coach Rick Adelman's infinite distrust of rookies merely games ago, Dieng has arrived in a big way, mitigating the severity of Pekovic's continued absence.

Like all things that appear too good to be true or sustainable, Dieng's rise has been met with thick applications of skepticism. Small sample sizes are enemies of the NBA, an entity that prides itself on advanced analytics and aporetic fans and pundits weeding out anomalies and impostors capitalizing on sporadic or limited playing time.

Dieng is no charlatan. That doesn't mean it's time to plan parades in honor of recurring All-Star appearances either.

There exists a contented balance between optimism and apprehension, and Dieng has earned a spot there, where breakouts are neither overblown nor whitewashed, but instead taken seriously.

 

Explosive Upon Arrival

Through Dieng's first 42 appearances of the season, he logged more than 15 minutes once. Sad, but true story.

Injuries to Ronny Turiaf and Nikola Pekovic depleted Minnesota's front line, forcing Adelman's hand. Watching Kevin Love defend centers isn't good practice, after all.

As it turns out, the injury bug was really a blessing in disguise for the lottery-bound Timberwolves, who are now witnessing the emergence of a key building block—or uber-valuable trade piece—moving forward.

In the last six games, Dieng is averaging 12.7 points, 14 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks on 59.2 percent shooting in 33.8 minutes, numbers that obliterate what he was posting before.

Dieng It, Dieng Is Good
When MPG PTS FG% REBS STLS BLKS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg.
First 42 Games 6.5 1.7 42.6 2.3 .3 .5 87.1 100.1
Last 6 33.8 12.7 59.2 14.0 1.2 1.2 109.1 99.4

NBA.com.

Among his most impressive performances is the 22-point, 21-rebound effort he put forth in a 126-109 loss to the Houston Rockets. In doing so, he became just the ninth player aged 24 or younger since 2009 to go for 22 and 21, respectively, in the same game. He also joined Love, DeJuan Blair and Nikola Vucevic as the only four players since 2009 to add four or more assists to that stat line as well. 

Not bad for a guy who spent most of this season riding the pine, eh?

But wait, it gets better.

Here's a look at some of his other accomplishments, courtesy of Minnesota's public-relations department:

Per NBA.com, Dieng has also put himself in the company of one Tim Duncan, among others as well:

Anytime a player attaches himself to Duncan's credentials, it's worth our attention. And yet, anytime single-game or abbreviated accomplishments are achieved, the pessimistic police roll in with their exploit-disparaging commentary.

Six games is nothing. Dieng is making the most of scant scouting reports. The Timberwolves aren't winning. This is all scripted nonsense, a precursor to the Los Angeles Lakers winning the draft lottery. Individual matchups have favored him.

All potentially valid points, emphasis on "potentially."

Though the Timberwolves aren't winning, we shouldn't be expecting them to. Love, a top-10 superstar, has been unable to quarterback a playoff run. Dieng isn't suddenly going to spark a comeback of epic and outlandish proportions.

Moreover, he has gone up against some decent opposing centers. His performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, who field an intimidating front line comprising Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dieng managed 11 points and 17 rebounds against them.

How about the fact that his numbers, when extrapolated, aren't much different from before? Are we to ignore that too?

Take a look at Dieng's per-36 minute splits through his first 42 games compared to the last six:

Dieng Per-36 Minutes
When FGM FGA FG% PTS REBS STLS BLKS Actual MPG
First 42 Games 3.8 8.9 42.6 9.2 12.6 1.4 3.0 6.5
Last 6 5.1 8.7 59.2 13.5 14.9 1.2 1.2 33.8

NBA.com.

Nothing about Dieng's emergence is unbelievable.

What we're seeing is a pretty good athlete using his size and length to make the most of more playing time. And his per-36 minute numbers have adjusted accordingly, increased or diminished legitimately. 

Dieng is grabbing rebounds and scoring points at a higher rate in more playing time, while his blocks and steals have declined. That's what happens when players go from appearing in short bursts to protracted, steady stretches. 

There's nothing abnormal about Dieng's abrupt rise. More playing time has equated to more of an impact.

Sometimes, it is, in fact, that simple.

 

Equipped for Sustainability

David Sherman/Getty Images

If anything is worth doubting, it's Dieng's ability to evolve into something more than he is now.

But I wouldn't recommend doubting that either.

Still raw, Dieng has been portrayed as a sponge, eager to soak up all the coaching and experience he can get, never once allowing his confidence or humility to waiver.

From Timberwolves.com's Mark Remme:

Okay, maybe not. But Gorgui Dieng is proving himself with each passing game as he continues to start for the injured Nikola Pekovic. And G, as his teammates call him, is doing it through his play. He’s confident on the court. He continued to work hard throughout his rookie season regardless of how many minutes he got early on, and when his opportunity came as Nikola Pekovic missed time with an ankle injury, he seized the moment and rallied off five double-doubles in six games—including a the first 20-20 rookie effort in Timberwolves history and another solid 15-point, 15-rebound effort in a 107-83 win over the Hawks last night.

If you ask the Wolves, they’ll tell you G has shown confidence since Day 1. He’s humble, don’t mistake that, but he also felt as though he was ready for the NBA when he left Louisville after his junior year. Behind the scenes, he showcased that confidence in practice. Now, he’s showing the Wolves’ fan base what he can do on a nightly basis.

Somehow, Dieng has managed to establish himself as self-assured without coming off as pretentious or entitled. That bodes well for his future in a league that demands you never stop improving or refining your game to succeed.

Also, let's not pretend this is all out of nowhere.

Dieng isn't some undrafted rookie sensation or late second-round pick thought to be nothing more than a temporary filler. He was drafted in the first round. He helped Louisville win a national championship in 2013, averaging 9.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in his final season.

"Confidence is everything in this league," Love said, per Remme. "Once you lose that, you know, you lose a lot of your game."

Dieng has that confidence, that swagger. He has the college resume to support what he's doing now.

And he has the tools, both mental and physical, to continue improving, to continue succeeding.

 

No Joke, Take Dieng Seriously

Doubt Dieng at your own risk. 

Write him off, and you're going to look like a fool. He has a future in this league. This recent stretch is proof enough. At his position, that's all it takes.

Centers are something of a dying breed in the NBA. They've already been nixed from the All-Star ballot as teams continue to run smaller lineups built around stretch forwards and frontcourt tweeners.

Big men are also easy to judge. One- or two-night wonders who suddenly fade, never to be heard from again, rarely exist at Dieng's position. If a center can deliver in this league, you know, and you know quickly.

Dieng, while still unpolished, can deliver. He's imperfect and playing a difficult position, but he's still playing it, holding his own and standing various tests. 

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Equally important, he's navigated different obstacles. From a lack of playing time to intermittent disappearances on the offensive end, we've seen how he reacts when struggling. Most of the time, he responds by finding other ways to contribute, be it with rebounding and shot-blocking, putbacks and on- and off-ball defense, or sheer hustle.

The effort has been there no matter what, bringing with it a reason to believe in these last six games, in Dieng.

"He’s got that mentality—he thinks he’s the best and he’s going to prove it," Ricky Rubio said of Dieng, per Remme. "And I like it. I like it if he works, and he does it. I think he’s going to be great in this league."

Maybe Dieng will be a "great" NBA center. Maybe not. But we know he's going to be good, we know he's going to be legitimate. He's already all those things.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required).


 

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