Louisville basketball: Don’t look now but Gorgui Dieng is re-emerging

Former Louisville basketball center Gorgui Dieng is quietly having a breakout season for the Minnesota Timberwolves after two seasons of looking like a wasted contract.

There’s no denying that it has been a bumpy ride for former Louisville basketball star center Gorgui Dieng while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. After being rewarded with a four-year, $48 million deal back in 2016 following a breakout season where he averaged a near double-double.

The Timberwolves were a struggling franchise but it looked like they had found an answer for their center position in Dieng. Then came a new look. Out was Flip Saunders and in came Tom Thibodeau, a very respected head coach who had great success as an assistant for the Celtics during their mid-2000s championship runs as well as for the Chicago Bulls during the mid-2010s.

Towards the end of his tenure in Chicago, Thibodeau was oftentimes criticized for his use of a small rotation, often-times wearing down his starters and forcing them into late-season fatigue and injury issues. He quickly began to do the same in Minnesota, playing Karl-Anthony Towns (the Wolves no. 1 overall pick in 2015) the way you’d expect a star to play, plus more. That move began to eat into the minutes and productivity of the recently rich Dieng.

Over the next three seasons, Dieng would see a decrease in nearly every major statistical category and it began to look like the once budding career was headed in the wrong direction. Dieng went from playing nearly 30-plus minutes a game to less than 15, making his contract and the Timberwolves franchise look crazy for the agreement just a few years earlier. It was evident a change was needed for Dieng, but it never came.

Luckily, Dieng had some luck on his side. Thibodeau was relieved of his duties midway through the 2018-19 season, as the Timberwolves put Ryan Saunders in the coach’s seat. Still, with Karl-Anthony Towns developing into an All-NBA caliber player, Dieng played a lesser role hoping for a chance.

While you never hope to see a star go down with an injury, the ankle injury suffered by Towns early in the 2020 season allowed for Dieng to begin getting the minutes he had in the years leading up to and closely following his extension.

Following 25 games of playing less than 15 minutes, Dieng got the chance to move into the starting role and gave the struggling Timberwolves a much-needed boost. Since then, Dieng has started 13 straight games and has averaged 13 points, 9 rebounds, and one block per game while shooting at a 47 percent clip from the field and developing into a real three-point threat shooting over 40 percent.

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During his early days a center for the Wolves, Dieng displayed a strong willingness to play defense, especially blocking shots, while being a reliable scorer around the rim and with his face to the basket. Where he struggled was switching onto smaller defenders or quicker forwards and having to defend them one on one. This season Dieng has shown much-improved defense while developing into a scorer away from the rim and an even better rebounder.

Without Karl-Anthony Towns and a few other key players, the Wolves have struggled, but when they’ve won, they’ve done so with Dieng playing a key role. In the 13 game stretch without Towns, Dieng has scored in double-figures 11 times, including a season-high 22 in a win vs. the Cavaliers, and has accrued five double-doubles, including a 20-rebound performance the Nets (also a win).

You’ll more likely hear about Dieng’s offensive re-emergence, but it’s the defense that the big man has displayed with Towns out that has many wondering whether or not playing the two together again (like they did Towns rookie) season will give the Wolves a stronger offensive/defensive combo.

The production is likely to go back towards the status quo when it comes to Dieng whenever Towns is able to return from injury. But while the star has been gone, the Timberwolves haven’t suffered the significant drop-off many expected and at the forefront of that is Dieng. The Wolves currently sit at 15-23 through 38 games, and are just three games outside of the eighth spot in the Western Conference, a spot not many expected they would be.

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At just 29 years-old, Dieng is still in the midst of his prime and his recent surge very well could make him a tradeable piece at the NBA Trade Deadline in February. Teams will be wary of the $17 million he’s owed next season in the final year of his contract; but with that money coming off the books at the end of 2021 and his recent play showing he can be a difference-maker as a starter, don’t be shocked to see a center needy team make the move.

 

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