Will Gorgui Dieng's Emergence Put Nikola Pekovic on the Trade Block?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2014

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 14: Gorgui Dieng #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during a game against the Golden State Warriors on April 14, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It was obvious last season, and it has become even more apparent this summer.

Minnesota Timberwolves sophomore-to-be Gorgui Dieng needs more minutes, and they could come at the expense of incumbent starting center Nikola Pekovic. Rather than burying one of the two on the bench, Wolves president-coach Flip Saunders might be forced to see what the market would bear for a productive big man.

Saunders has been in this position before, although under entirely different circumstances. This isn't about caving to a superstar's demands, as was the case in the franchise-altering Kevin Love trade Saunders orchestrated earlier this offseason.

In fact, this isn't about a star player—a label Pekovic should sport after putting up stellar per-game marks of 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds last season—at all. Rather, it's a reflection of the steaming locomotive behind that player, as Dieng's rapid run through the early portion of the FIBA World Cup has proven impossible to ignore:

For the astute observer, Dieng's demolition of international competition may not come as a surprise.

Despite being tethered to former Wolves coach Rick Adelman's bench for the bulk of his rookie campaign, Dieng flashed impressive ability once his leash was finally lengthened. It took an ankle injury to Pekovic to open up that door, but that was all the opportunity Dieng needed to make a compelling case for a major role.

The former Louisville standout dropped double-doubles in each of his first three NBA starts. During his third run with the opening lineup, he erupted for 22 points and 21 rebounds, a stat line matched by only eight other players over the entire 2013-14 campaign.

Dieng wound up starting 15 of his final 18 games, posting per-game averages of 12 points and 11.3 rebounds. During those 15 starts alone, those numbers increased to 12.2 and 12, respectively.

Granted, that's a minuscule sample size, but the big man was able to carry that momentum over into the offseason.

He had three double-doubles in six games at the Las Vegas Summer League and three outings there with multiple blocked shots. And while he's cooled a bit from his torrid World Cup start, he still ranks eighth in scoring (18.0) and second in rebounding (11.4) through five games.

His stat sheets aren't the only reason so many heads have turned his direction, either. More impressive than the numbers themselves is the way he's gone about compiling them:

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors goes up for the dunk against Nikola Pekovic #14 of the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 24, 2012 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

His physical tools helped punch his NBA ticket—he has a 7'3.5" wingspan, per DraftExpress—but his versatility has propelled him from being an afterthought role player to a potential full-time starter.

Saunders has said he can see that versatility pairing well with Pekovic on the same frontcourt.

"I think you can play them (together)," Saunders told the Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda. "I think that's probably something we've work on a lot this summer, to see Gorgui's ability to play out on the floor a little bit more. I always say what position you are is who you can guard and I think he can guard 4s."

Maybe the experiment will break Minnesota's way, but a Dieng-Pekovic frontcourt seems like a temporary look that might work only in certain situations.

Offensively, the pair will struggle to pull defenses out of the paint. Pekovic shot just 41.5 percent outside of the restricted area last season, while Dieng connected on only 31.9 percent of his jump shots.

The opposite end could be even tougher to navigate.

Dieng is by far the superior rim protector, whether judging by shot-blocking (2.2 per 36 minutes compared to Pekovic's 0.5) or opponent's field-goal percentage at the rim (51.5 and 55.5, respectively). But this setup would force Dieng to stray away from the basket, leaving the ground-bound Pekovic vulnerable against high-flying finishers.

Apr 6, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) and Detroit Pistons center Greg Monroe (10) fight for a loose ball in the second half at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 107-101. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It also might push Dieng beyond his defensive limits. He has the quickness to keep pace with traditional power forwards, but smaller, more athletic stretch-4s might run circles around him.

Does the fact that they can't always play together mean they must be broken up? Not necessarily.

However, the money owed to Pekovic and the high ceiling in front of Dieng led one analyst to push for a transaction last season, before Love cut the ribbon on Minnesota's youth movement.

"They must consider trading the 28-year-old Pekovic, who will have four years and $47.9 million left on his contract," NBC Sports' Dan Feldman wrote in March. " ... He should still hold value around the league, and Minnesota could use whatever he fetches in a trade plus the possible salary savings to upgrade its roster."

Pekovic deserves a starting spot somewhere. There aren't many guys capable of doing what he does. Only 13 others averaged at least 17 points and eight boards last season, and just two of those players had a higher field-goal percentage than the big man (54.1).

As for what that means for his trade value, that remains uncertain. He has never missed fewer than 17 games in any of his four NBA seasons, and his upside isn't the same as most four-year veterans given he'll turn 29 in January.

His limitations are similar to those of Greg Monroe, who entered the offseason with max-contract dreams and now could be forced to settle for a one-year, $5.5 million qualifying offer. Both shot under 32 percent from beyond 10 feet, and neither averaged more than 0.6 blocks per night.

If the market felt bearish about the 24-year-old Monroe, it might be even less inclined to part with coveted assets for the older Pekovic.

If Pekovic doesn't hit the trade block, that will be the reason—Minnesota won't find the requisite reward to justify the cost.

But if there's a sliver of hope that the team finds something substantial (players, picks, prospects or any combination of the three), it's an option Saunders must explore.

Pekovic might be the better player, but that shouldn't be the Timberwolves' focus. By bringing Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young on board, Minnesota committed itself to a future built around youth, length and athleticism.

Oh, and defense.

"I'm hoping that the biggest change is going to be defensively," Saunders said, via Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press. "Always a key in your ability to guard is your athleticism. The quicker you are, the longer you are, the better chance you have to be a good defensive team."

If the Wolves want defense, quickness, length and athleticism, then Pekovic's days in the Gopher State should be numbered.

Dieng is a perfect fit with this revamped roster. His dominant display at the World Cup is just the latest evidence of that.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.