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.

Report: Chris Paul increasingly expected to start season with Thunder

Tim Warner/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Last week, the Thunder had an expensive point guard who’s into his 30s and didn’t fit a team shifting into rebuilding without Paul George.

Same story now.

Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul to acquire draft picks and shed long-term salary. Getting Paul as a player was of minimal concern. That’s why the Thunder worked with him to flip him. But a team like the Heat wanted draft picks just for taking the three years and $124,076,442 remaining on Paul’s contract.

So, Oklahoma City might hold onto Paul, after all.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The 34-year-old Paul is past his prime. But he’s still good. It’d be interesting to see him once again as his team’s best player after he spent so much time stuck in the corner watching James Harden.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams could form the core of a solid team this season. Paul can run an offense, and Adams (pick-and-roll) and Gallinari (pick-and-pop) offer nice complementary skills. If Andre Roberson is healthy or if a young player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Terrence Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo takes the next step, Oklahoma City could make real noise.

The Thunder’s biggest challenge: They play in the loaded Western Conference. That makes it far more difficult to make the playoffs. But in terms of team quality, Oklahoma City could be in the thick of competitiveness.

If Paul and Gallinari stay healthy. That can’t be assumed, though Adams can do some dirty work to keep those two clean.

The Thunder have tremendous draft capital – so much of which is tied to the fates of the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and Nuggets. Oklahoma City could tank and improve its draft position further and sooner. But owning so many picks from other teams allows the Thunder to try to win now while simultaneously rebuilding. They don’t necessarily have to waste seasons in the basement just to build themselves back up.

It will probably be easier to trade Paul on Dec. 15. That’s when most free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. Right now, too many teams have untradable players, making it difficult to match Paul’s high salary. Generally, the more of Paul’s contract the Thunder pay out, the easier it’ll be to trade him.

But if Paul declines sharply or gets hurt, his value could diminish even further. There’s risk in waiting, though an injured Paul might allow Oklahoma City to tank anyway.

The Thunder must also cut a few million of salary before the final day of the regular season to avoid the luxury tax. That’s a priority.

So, Oklahoma City will make some move – Paul or otherwise.

But it appears likely we’ll see Paul play for the Thunder. It’ll be a return to Oklahoma City after he played home games there with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.

This isn’t the reunion Paul or the Thunder appeared to desire when the Westbrook trade was agreed upon. I still think it could be pretty cool.

Ben Simmons reverses course, withdraws from Australia’s Word Cup squad

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
2 Comments

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ben Simmons‘ new contract extension with the Philadelphia 76ers came with bad news for Australian basketball fans: The Melbourne-born NBA All-star won’t play for the Boomers at the World Cup.

Hours after Simmons and the 76ers agreed to a $170 million, five-year contract extension on Tuesday, Simmons said he preferred to spend time with his new teammates in September instead of travelling to China for the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 World Cup.

“I wanted to let everyone know that after consulting with my representation, I’ve made the difficult decision to forego playing in the World Cup in China,” Simmons said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we decided it was best that I use the time in September to return to Philadelphia to acquaint myself with my new teammates and prepare for the upcoming NBA season.”

Simmons had been selected for Australia’s World Cup squad and had earlier indicated he planned to play the tournament in China.

He now plans to play only for the Boomers in two exhibition games against the United States in Melbourne on Aug. 22 and 24 at a stadium that is expected to be sold out – 50,000 fans – for each game. He also said the Olympics next year in Tokyo remain on his schedule.

“I will still be heading back home to Australia to host my camps as well as train and play with the Boomers in the upcoming exhibition games,” Simmons said. “I’m really excited about the talent we have on the Boomers squad, especially moving closer to 2020 where I will be honored and humbled to represent my country on the world’s biggest sporting stage at the Olympics in Tokyo.”

Simmons was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. He made his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season and was the Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for the first time last season. He has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists in his two seasons.

Australia’s World Cup lineup is set to feature San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Joe Ingles of Utah Jazz, Phoenix center Aron Baynes, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Bogut, Detroit center-forward Thon Maker and Simmons’ 76ers teammate Jonah Bolden.

 

Just a reminder, after draft and free agency Wizards have still not named official GM

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

When Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM back in April — to the joy of Wizards fans everywhere — it was expected they would have a new head of basketball operations in place by the draft.

Nope.

So by the start of free agency, to guide the Wizards through this tumultuous summer?

Nope.

Tommy Sheppard has been doing the job on an interim basis, and as Jeff Zillgit of the USA Today points out a lot of league talk in Las Vegas was about why Leonsis just hasn’t given Shepard the job.

Team executive after executive had the same question when the Washington Wizards’ unresolved top front-office job opening came up. “Why not just give Tommy the job?”

Tommy is Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime exec, who has been running basketball operations since owner Ted Leonsis decided not to bring Ernie Grunfeld back. Sheppard ran the draft, free agency and the Wizards’ Summer League team, but he doesn’t have the full-time job.

A couple of more prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at points. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

At this point, after Sheppard has built the team for this coming season, is Leonsis really going to bring in someone else?

The Wizards have decisions to make. This is a young roster not ready to be a threat in the East, but with Bradley Beal and the injured John Wall (likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles), they also are capped out. So far they have turned away calls from other teams about a Beal trade (nobody is calling about a Wall trade with his max contract extension just kicking in).

Come July 26 the Wizards can offer Beal a three-year, $111 million extension, both sides are talking and the offer is expected to be made. That’s when the big decision comes — if Beal doesn’t sign that offer the Wizards have to look at trading him. Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards, but there was plenty of informed league speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and may not sign the extension, essentially forcing his way out. It’s something to watch in the coming weeks.

It probably would be nice to have a locked-in head of basketball operations by then, but who knows what Leonsis will do.

Cameron Payne reportedly agrees to partially-guaranteed contract with Toronto

Getty Images
1 Comment

Cameron Payne was the starting point guard at one point early in the season in Chicago (until Kris Dunn returned), it didn’t last long, and by the middle of the season he was waived. The Cavaliers picked him up in a limited role at the end of the season.

Payne played for Dallas at Summer League and needed to impress there to have a shot a roster spot for next season. He did, averaging 20 points per game on 51 percent shooting, and he had one 32-point game.

The Toronto Raptors will bring Payne and let him compete to be the third point guard, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Raptors have Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet at the point, there are not a lot of minutes to be had there. However, both men are in the final year of their contracts. Plus, he brings some pregame dancing that every team needs.

The Raptors now have 16 potential NBA contracts coming into training camp, which means there will be cuts. The fact Payne has a decent guarantee his first year means he’s going to get a real look.

Payne, the No. 14 pick of the Thunder back in 2015, has struggled to find a fit in the NBA. While his skill set should fit the modern game, he doesn’t quite shoot or distribute well enough to earn a coach’s trust. He will try to change that with Nick Nurse.