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.

Report: Paul Pierce probably wants to come back and play for Clippers, but still thinking it over

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The Los Angeles Clippers still have Paul Pierce under contract. Not many minutes for him, but he has a roster spot.

Pierce probably wants come back but is thinking it all over, according to Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times.

Pierce has been debating this with himself for a while now.

Pierce saw a dramatic drop off in production and how much he was used last season by Rivers. Pierce averaged a career-low 6.1 points per game on an also career low 48.9 true shooting percentage. His PER of 8.2 was also a career low. You get the idea. By the end of the season Pierce was mostly an afterthought for Doc Rivers (although he did start one game after Blake Griffin was out and the Clippers’ playoff dreams were toast).

Pierce would be more mentor than a key player on the court, but he would be on probably the third best team in the West, a team that capable of making a deep playoff run. Does he want to do that for one more season? You know Doc would welcome him.

Andrea Bargnani signing in Spain

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 14:  Andrea Bargnani #9 of the Brooklyn Nets takes a shot as Andrew Nicholson #44 of the Orlando Magic defends at Barclays Center on December 14, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of  New York City.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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Andrea Bargnani said he would’ve played “for free” to prove himself with the Nets last season.

That would have been about the right price.

Bargnani suffered through a miserable season — full of injury, poor individual play and losing. Brooklyn eventually bought him out.

Now, the entire NBA might be finished with the former No. 1 pick.

Bargnani signed with Spanish team Saski Baskonia.

At age 30, he faces a long road back to world’s top league — if he even wants to try. Bargnani is a one-dimensional jump shooter, and he doesn’t even shoot that well.

It was ridiculous for the Knicks to trade a first-rounder for him, and that was three years ago already. Bargnani is only further from his peak now.

Maybe he carves out a niche in Europe, where his lack of physicality is less likely to be exposed. But Bargnani is no longer an NBA player.

Pat Riley: Dion Waiters ‘is not a room-exception player’

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 12: Dion Waiters #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after hitting a basket against the San Antonio Spurs  during the first half of Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 12, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.   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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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The Heat signed Dion Waiters to a room-exception contract.

Heat president Pat Riley, via Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

“Dion is not a Room Exception player. He wanted to play for the Miami Heat and chose to forgo other more lucrative financial opportunities to be a part of our championship organization. We are very honored that he made the commitment to come to South Florida and sign with us. Dion is young, athletic and explosive, which fits in with our roster. He will add a great dimension for us at the off-guard spot. I really like the depth and versatility that we now have in our perimeter positions. Welcome aboard Dion!”

I’m really curious about those “more lucrative financial opportunities.”

The Thunder didn’t think Waiters was worth his one-year, $6,777,589 qualifying offer. They earmarked that money for a Russell Westbrook renegotiation-and-extension and don’t define the market themselves. But every team has other uses for its money than paying Waiters, and none deemed Waiters a priority.

How much could Waiters have gotten next season if he signed a multi-year deal rather than the 1+1 he inked with Miami? The whole “Waiters betting on himself” narrative falls apart if nobody was willing to bet more more on Waiters.

The 24-year-old is talented. But his ball-hogging, drifting focus and me-first attitude can be infuriating.

It behooves Riley to paint Waiters as more than a room-exception player, because that enhances Riley’s reputation as someone who lures free agents for less than market value. A big-time compliment from the influential Riley might have even part of Waiters’  contract negotiation.

But there’s a reason Waiters signed for the room exception. It has something to do with the type of player he is.

Report: Clippers exploring leaving Lakers at Staples Center, getting their own arena

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Jamal Crawford #11 of the Los Angeles Clippers pulls up for a shot between Brandon Bass #2 and D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Clippers don’t just play second fiddle to the Lakers in Los Angeles. They play second fiddle to the Lakers in their own arena.

Unless the Clippers want to move from the NBA’s second-biggest market, the former isn’t changing.

The Latter?

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

The Clippers want to escape the Lakers’ shadow. Leaving the Staples Center wouldn’t turn the Clippers into L.A.’s team, but it’d give them a new avenue for attention — and revenue.

Of course, if the Clippers stay in the Staples Center, they’ll want the best terms possible. Leaking interest in a new arena only helps their bargaining position.