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

10 Comments

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.

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

Getty Images
1 Comment

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

image

Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

Getty Images
1 Comment

LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

A post shared by NBA (@nba) on

“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
1 Comment

LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.