Kevin Love, Samuel Dalembert

Extra Pass: Gorgui Dieng’s breakthrough opens options for Minnesota Timberwolves

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Gorgui Dieng, as the story goes, protested leaving a Louisville game his freshman year after fouling out because he didn’t realized offensive fouls counted toward the limit.

That was forgivable, considering Dieng was so raw. He had lived in Senegal two years prior, and he was ineligible even to practice for weeks leading up to his first Louisville season.

His transition to understanding NBA fouling didn’t go much more smoothly. Until the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 20th game, Dieng had more fouls than points for the season.

That was a bit more problematic.

Minnesota drafted Dieng No. 21 overall last June, making him the oldest pick in the first round at age 23. *Even though Dieng left Louisville after his junior season, it’d been four years since anyone that old had been drafted so high (Tyler Hansbrough, No. 13 by the Pacers in 2009).

*Colton Iverson, whom the Pacers drafted No. 53 and then traded to the Celtics, was the only older player drafted in 2013. Boston didn’t sign him.

In other words, Dieng lacked the untapped potential of his draft-classmates. For Minnesota to justify his selection, Dieng needed to produce immediately.

Well, he didn’t. Far from it. For most of the season, Dieng frequently received DNP-CDs, playing just a few minutes when Rick Adelman summoned him off the bench.

But after Nikola Pekovic suffered an ankle injury March 14 against the Bobcats, Dieng started six games at center. He had double-doubles in his first three games, including 22 points and 21 rebounds against the Rockets. Even after going to the bench for the Timberwolves’ last two games, Dieng has sustained his breakthrough.

  • First 42 games: 1.7 points, 2.3 points, 0.3 steals and 0.6 blocks per game
  • Last 8 games: 11.9 points, 13.0 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game

Eight games isn’t necessarily a large enough sample to evaluate a player. But the only other players to hit those point-rebound-steal-blocks marks in an eight-game span this season: Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Joakim Noah, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis. To say the least, those are all NBA-caliber starters.

So where does that leave Dieng?

He’s active under the basket, sealing defenders and using his good hands to get the ball in prime position. Given space to elevate, he does so quickly for high-percentage looks around the basket. If opponents force him to delay his shot, he becomes much more defendable as his post moves lack counters other than than repeated pump fakes.

Dieng doesn’t have much of an expanded offensive game – 91 percent of his makes have been assisted or putbacks (using data from MySynergySports) – but the Timberwolves are increasingly running pick-and-rolls with him, and he’s comfortable with hook shots inside and short face-up jumpers.

He can weave his way through crowds for tip-ins, again taking advantage of his ability to elevate quickly. He’ll make opponents pay for not boxing out.

The same ability to punish opponents’ mistakes exists on the other side of the ball, too. Don’t throw a lazy pass or take a careless dribble near Dieng, who possesses a 7-foot-3.5 wingspan.

He’s really rounding into form for a first-year player, even one who is already 24. In this shallow rookie crop, Dieng could even make the All-Rookie second team with a strong close to the season.

Does Minnesota, which is 36-36 and has already faded out of the playoff race, regret not giving Dieng an expanded role sooner? Maybe, but he gave little indication prior that he was ready.

The bigger question: What do the Timberwolves do now?

They must consider trading the 28-year-old Pekovic, who will have four years and $47.9 million left on his contract. He’s 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season, a career year. 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. Then, Dieng could start regularly.

Or the Timberwolves could trade Dieng, though it’s not easy to trade players on rookie contracts. Few teams are willing to part with their own rookies, i.e., the players who have similar values and matching contracts.

How to handle Kevin Love does – and should – take priority for the Timberwolves. But, suddenly, they have options at center.

It’s difficult to imagine Love re-signing with the Timberwolves unless they make the playoffs next season. And while the Western Conference is likely to revert to the remain and not remain historically strong, the road won’t be easy.

Minnesota could use upgrades over Corey Brewer at small forward, Kevin Martin at shooting guard and/or Ricky Rubio at point guard. In isolation, each of those three is fine, but collectively, the trio is hardly infallible.

Dieng has already shown he deserves starting consideration next season. In their final 10 games, the Timberwolves must get a better grasp of Dieng’s value and how they can best use him this summer.

Keeping Love, if that’s what Minnesota is committed to doing, won’t be an easy lock to pick. If a key exists, it might just be Dieng.

Raptors’ Bismack Biyombo given after-the-fact Flagrant 2 for elbow to Pacers’ Turner, no suspension

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates a dunk late in the second half of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 26, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Bismack Biyombo is going to be key for Toronto in their second round series against Miami. The Raptors will need his rim protection when Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade start to drive.

Which is why the Raptors are lucky he did not get suspended for this blow from Game 7 vs. the Pacers (watch Biyombo elbow Myles Turner in the face in the middle of the key):

https://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

At the time there was no call — as bad a miss as anything from the end of the Thunder/Spurs game — but after the fact the NBA has assessed a flagrant 2 foul on Biyombo.

However, no mention of a suspension for this incident alone. The Raptors catch a break there, as Biyombo should have been tossed from the game and/or given a suspension for that elbow. That said, one more flagrant and he does get a suspension.

NBA’s Basketball Without Borders to host first event in Australia

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 21:  A general view is seen of the city skyline over Melbourne Park during day three of the 2015 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Andrew Bogut. Dante Exum. Matthew Dellavedova. Patty Mills. Joe Ingles. Technically Kyrie Irving (he was born there but plays internationally for the USA).

Australia has brought a fair amount of talent — and scrappy players — to the NBA, and now the NBA is taking one of its outreach programs there.

Yesterday the NBA, FIBA, and Australia’s National Basketball League announced a Basketball without Borders event June 23-26 at Dandenong Basketball Stadium in Melbourne. It’s the first time the community outreach program will come to the island nation of Australia.

“We are pleased to partner with FIBA and the NBL to bring the first Basketball without Borders camp to Australia,” NBA Asia Managing Director Scott Levy said in a statement. “The league has seen a surge of Australian talent in recent years, and we look forward to supporting the next generation by giving them a platform to showcase their skills alongside their peers from throughout the region.”

These events bring in youth basketball players and work with them, both giving young players highest quality instruction and raising the profile of the sport in the nation with a little star power. Basketball Without Borders will celebrate 15 years this summer and has been all over the globe with similar events.

Now they can check Australia off the list.

Free agent Nicolas Batum sounds like a guy who wants to return to Charlotte

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 17: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets  looks on during Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs  at American Airlines Arena on April 17, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Let’s not pretend it’s about anything else — it’s about the money.

Nicolas Batum is a free agent this summer, right after the best season of his career averaging 14.9 points a game and shooting 34.8 percent from beyond the arc. The last couple years quality “3&D” guys such as DeMarre Carroll have gotten paid bit money, and Batum is next on that list.

But all things being equal, he sounds like a player who would love to stay with Charlotte. Look at what he said the day of exit interviews to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer:

“We should be playing tomorrow (in the Eastern Conference semifinals) and we’re pretty mad about that,” Batum said of Sunday’s Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat.

“So this is unfinished business.”

“It was a pretty cool year. First time I got to play like I want to in eight years in the NBA.”

Batum went on to say the Hornets will be the first team he speaks with July 1. If the Hornets want to keep him, they will get their chance.

The Hornets have some difficult decisions to make this summer. In addition to Batum, their most coveted free agent around the league, the Hornets also have Jeremy Lin (who will opt out), Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, and Courtney Lee. Keeping all of them may not be possible in a market where teams are flush with cap space thanks to the new television deal and overspending.

It may take a max or at least near max deal to keep Batum — GMs across the league saw what he could do this season and want him. That fifth year that only Charlotte can offer may be key for a guy who will be on the other side of 30 when he tries to get his next contract. Which is overpaying some, but that’s what the market will be like this summer. The Hornets have to decide their priorities on bringing their current core of free agents back, and what price tag they are willing to pay for each guy.

But if they are willing to pay, Batum would like to be back.

Kevin Love says he’s fine after leg, shoulder injuries in Game 1 vs. Hawks

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Kevin Love was hobbling off the court more like he just played a football game than a basketball game. He took a few hits during the game.

The most notable was to his surgically repaired shoulder left when the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore bought a pump fake and ended up landing on that shoulder (video above). Love came off the court holding his shoulder after that one, which was a little too reminiscent of last year for Cavs fans. Then there was the leg injury when he landed awkwardly trying to tip out a rebound.

So how is Love doing? He said after the game he’s just fine, as reported by Ken Berger of CBSSports.com.

“I’m fine,” Love said. “It was just one of those plays. You’ve always got to watch those plays when you pump fake on the 3-point line or on a jump shot and you’re leaning in and get hit, but I feel good.”

Love also came up limping later in the quarter when he landed awkwardly on his toe. He was weight-bearing in a vulnerable position for his knee momentarily, but appeared to catch himself before coming out of the game. A team source said it was more of a precaution than a necessity, as the game was well in hand by that point.

Love will be on the court for Game 2 Wednesday night. He had 17 points (but on 4-of-17 shooting) and 11 rebounds in Game 1, finishing a +15 on a night when the Cavaliers starters did their jobs, and the bench showed its flaws. I thought this could be a breakout big playoff series for Love, and his shooting certainly did not live up to that billing, but he did draw Kent Bazemore on him (keeping him off LeBron), which is a good thing. Also, he did a solid job defensively matched up on Al Horford (4-of-13 shooting) and if he can continue that the Cavs path to the next round is easier.