For all intents and purposes, there were only four players who had mostly healthy, full seasons for the Timberwolves in 2014-15: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Chase Budinger and Gorgui Dieng. The two rookies (Wiggins and LaVine) had their ups and downs, but appear destined for bigger and brighter things in the near future. The veteran (Budinger) overcame a disappointing start and inconsistent playing time to put together a solid final month and a half, which is important for his future, as his contract is up following the 2015-16 season.
Then there’s Dieng. The second-year man out of Louisville didn’t particuarly stand out in either or positive or negative ways this past season. He isn’t playing for a spot in the league (he certainly belongs). He isn’t on the verge of an imminent contract extension (he’s under team control through 2016-17 at $3.8 million). Unlike Wiggins (and to a lesser extent LaVine), Dieng probably isn’t on the cusp of catapulting into superstardom (at 25, he’s easily the oldest player from his draft class, and is in many ways a finished product).
What he is is a very solid big man, both literally (6’11, 245 pounds) and figuratively (if he’s your third or fourth big, your frontcourt depth is probably exceptional). In 73 games and 2,193 minutes (second on the team), Dieng averaged 9.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.7 blocks on 51% field goal shooting and 78% shooting from the free throw line. The quiet but supremely confident Dieng joined Wiggins, LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad in the Rising Stars Game at All-Star Weekend in New York, giving the Timberwolves an unprecedented four players in the event. His season was ended prematurely when he suffered a head injury versus the Pelicans on March 29th.
Dieng’s two main skills during his rookie season were rebounding and rim protection. Looking at the numbers, he appears to have declined in both areas during his sophomore campaign. While the dip in the Dieng’s raw rebounding stats (13.2 rebounds per-36 minutes in 2013-14 compared to 10.0 rebounds per-36 in 2014-15) can be explained, in part, by the Wolves’ abysmal defense (if your opponent makes shots at the highest rate in the league, there are fewer boards to collect), it doesn’t account for the drop in his rebounding rate, which calculates Gorgui’s ability to grab the percentage of rebounds available. That figure dropped from 20.0% to 15.9%.
One thing that can be partially explained away are Dieng’s lackluster rim-protection stats. While he was occasionally late on rotations and prone to recklessly hunting for blocks, Dieng was paid no favors by the abysmal perimeter defense in front of him (read also: Zach LaVine), which often allowed ballhandlers to gain a head of steam before meeting him in the paint. Only one player in the league (Pau Gasol) contested more shots at the rim on a game-to-game basis than Dieng’s 10.2, of which 55.8% found the bottom of the net. During his rookie season, that figure was 51.5%, which is still far from elite, but closer to the profile of a defensive-minded big off the bench.
Interestingly enough, while most observers pigeonhole Dieng as a defender, he seems to have a high degree of confidence in his own offensive skill, with mixed results. He was a decent post player who led the team in elbow touches and displayed a nuanced understanding of how and when to pass the ball in halfcourt situations. He showed soft touch on midrange jumpers, including a particularly sweet tendency to kiss the ball off the glass on bank shots from the elbow. However, he was a tad turnover prone, finishing in the top 15% of the league in turnover ratio. Dieng also struggled to finish around the rim, particularly on offensive rebounds, where could be a bit myopic; instead of kicking the ball back out to reset the offense, Gorgui often tried to put it back up himself, without much success. A brief statistical summary of his offensive output:
All in all, the Wolves were better when Dieng was on the floor than when he was on the bench, something that few of the team’s young players (and even a couple of surprising veterans) can boast. But what is his role going forward, particularly with the glut of bigs on the roster – not to mention the incoming top overall pick, who is likely to play the same position he does?
It’s possible Dieng is trade bait; a solid big man with a team-friendly deal is a valuable commodity. But since there’s really no rush to deal him, the right offer would have to fall into the Wolves’ lap, which seems somewhat unlikely. A big man rotation of Karl-Anthony Towns (or Jahlil Okafor) plus Dieng, Kevin Garnett, Adreian Payne and whatever is left of Nikola Pekovic sounds like a pretty good mix of skill sets, ages and salaries in the front court.
It’ll be important for Dieng to be ready for a training camp battle – if for no other reason than Kevin Garnett will likely be present – because he’s going to have to earn his minutes come October. While his 2014-15 season was somewhat underwhelming, it’s possible that a return to overall team health with raise Gorgui’s play along with it. If that’s the case, look for him to be an important player for the Woves in 2015-16.