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.

Marcus Morris explains his change of plans from Spurs deal to Knicks

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Marcus Morris‘ move built up some hard feelings around the NBA. Players have verbally agreed to contracts with one team only to change their mind before, but in this case the Spurs had made roster moves — including trading Davis Bertans go to the Wizards — to clear out space for Morris, leaving San Antonio in a tough spot when Morris changed his mind and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs were pissed at the Knicks about this. Executives with other teams did not like the potential precedent the move set.

Morris offered his first explanation of what happened to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

It starts here: Morris’ agent at the time Rich Paul negotiated a three-year, $41 million offer from the Clippers at the start of free agency. Morris turned it down, and he admitted that was against Paul’s advice.

“All this stuff that (Paul) didn’t want me to go to the Clippers and didn’t want me to go against LeBron (James), that’s not true,” Morris said. “He never told me not to take the deal. For as long as I’ve known Rich — and that’s still someone I have love for and that’s still my guy — he has been great in terms of advice. He told me he wanted me to take the Clippers deal. He gave me his advice. It was my decision and I had to make the best decision for me and my family.”

Things moved very fast at the start of free agency (more than 50 contracts were agreed to in the first 24 hours) and that left Morris not wanting the music to stop without him having a chair. That’s when he accepted the two-year, $20 million offer from San Antonio. Morris said he didn’t expect another offer, but when the Knicks came through with one year, $15 million he wanted it and tried to be up front about the situation.

“I have a good relationship with those guys and I have so much respect for (head coach) Pop (Gregg Popovich), (general manager) RC (Buford) and (assistant GM) Brian Wright,” Morris told The Athletic. “The first thing that I did when I knew I would be going another direction, I called and made sure they knew. There was no shade. There’s no disrespect. I had great conversations afterward, and as long as I feel that I’m clear with them and gave them my truth, I feel good about moving forward.

“I was under the impression that I didn’t have anything left. I thought at the time that the Spurs deal was all that I had. The process wasn’t what I expected and it didn’t go the right way.”

Morris has split ways with Paul as an agent, reportedly over this incident.

Morris has now essentially bet on himself. The Knicks are not going to win a lot of games, but Morris is going to have a significant role and should get a lot of touches. Have a strong season and he will enter a much weaker free agent class next summer as one of the better players in it. That could lead to a bigger payday. Plus he makes more per year now.

 

 

Karl-Anthony Towns: “I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time”

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A few years back, Minnesota looked like a team on a fast rise in the West, mostly because Karl-Anthony Towns looked like a young dominant force starting to come of age in the league.

It hasn’t worked out that way, even though Minnesota finally made the playoffs back in 2018. Andrew Wiggins has not developed into a No. 2 options (even though he is getting paid like a No. 1 option), Towns has not consistently owned the defensive end, and under Tom Thibodeau there were a lot of chemistry issues highlighted by Jimmy Butler blowing up last training camp and essentially torpedoing the season before it started.

In today’s NBA news cycle, driven by rumors and speculation about player movement — and the player movement itself — all those issues in Minnesota has people looking at Towns. That despite the fact his five-year max extension just kicks in this season.

Towns isn’t looking to move. There’s a new coach (Ryan Saunders) who Towns has a good bond with, there’s a new head of basketball operations (Gersson Rosas) who is aggressive and who Towns likes, and the two-time All-Star center told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic he is happy right now in Minnesota.

“The biggest thing when you have that conversation [about a star switching teams] is you say, ‘Is he happy here?’” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”

What makes Towns happy is he can see the plan now — and it’s finally to build around him. Towns is the top dog and this summer the Timberwolves made a push to land D'Angelo Russell to be his No. 2 (since it’s not Wiggins). That, however, fell short as Russell is in Golden State. (For now at least, if the fit with Stephen Curry is not right Russell could be on the move, and Minnesota would be interested.) Still, there was an organized plan of attack and a shuffling around of players to give Minnesota more flexibility. Towns says he is comfortable this is a franchise on the right path. Even if it’s going to take some time to get there.

In a deep West, Minnesota looks to be a team on the outside of the playoff chase that needs a lot of things to go right to get in it. They have some good players, but also a lot of youth and questions.

“We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”

Marcus Smart, Thaddeus Young reportedly added to USA Basketball training camp roster

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Elite NBA players have not dropped out of playing for Team USA like this since 2004, when nobody wanted to play for Larry Brown and rumors of potential terrorism in Athens had the NBA’s best backing out.

For the 2019 World Cup in China, USA Basketball has watched James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tobias Harris, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, and CJ McCollum all back out, robbing the American team of a lot of star power. Zion Williamson, who was projected to be part of the “select team” of young stars Team USA goes against also dropped out.

The Americans were down to 14 players heading into training camp (12 will be chosen to travel to China), and they needed more players. Enter Boston’s Marcus Smart and Thaddeus Young, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Don’t be surprised if another veteran name or two is added before training camp opens.

Smart and Young are a couple of smart selections, elite defenders who can shut down the best wing players on other teams (and in FIBA competition only a couple of teams have more than one top-flight wing player to handle).

So who is on the USA roster now? Let’s break it out by position:

GUARDS:
Damian Lillard
Kemba Walker
Kyle Lowry (questionable coming off thumb surgery)
Marcus Smart

WINGS:
Khris Middleton
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum
Harrison Barnes
Kyle Kuzma
PJ Tucker
Thaddeus Young

BIGS:
Andre Drummond
Myles Turner
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love
Paul Millsap

(We could argue about whether Mitchell is a guard or a wing, if Tucker is a big or a wing, but you get the basic picture.)

After Lillard, that roster does lack star power.

But the USA talent pool is so deep that it will overwhelm all but a couple of teams in the tournament. Serbia — led by Nikola Jokic and Bogan Bogdanovic — is the biggest threat to the USA and has good depth. Spain is impressive as well, but older.

The USA is and should be the World Cup favorite, but an improved rest of the world and a depleted USA roster is going to make things a lot more interesting in China.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.