- The Timberwolves' Gorgui Dieng plays a complementary role on an up-and-coming team full of young stars, and he doesn't mind it one bit.
The Warriors avenged last season’s loss to the Timberwolves on Saturday night, but only after Minnesota’s young core flexed the muscles that led many to predict a Wolves playoff berth this April. Zach Lavine dropped 31 points, Andrew Wiggins tomahawked the dunk of the year over JaVale McGee and Karl-Anthony Towns—with Draymond Green sidelined—abused the Warriors inside for 12 points in the first quarter alone.
And then, with the clock hovering just over one minute remaining, Gorgui Dieng stepped into a three-pointer at the top of the arc. He bent his knees and softly snapped the ball above his head like he’s done on 32 catch and shoot attempts this season.
Dieng drained the triple, his fourth attempted three-pointer in two games. Dieng is up to eight three-point tries on the season, having only attempted 27 during his first three years in the NBA. It’s a natural transition for someone with Dieng’s smooth stroke. The 6’11” center had converted 13-of-29 shots (44.8%) this season between 17 feet and the three-point line before that Warriors contest, an elite mark in the league that tied none other than Stephen Curry, per Synergy Sports.
He drained that three, but the long ball went relatively unnoticed in a game full of the theatrics performed by his other Timberpups teammates. That’s how it’s always gone for Dieng, and he’s perfectly content with it. His natural state is literally putting his head down. His conversational voice isn’t much louder than a whisper. Playing a secondary character is something he’s perfected since complementing Peyton Siva and Russ Smith in Louisville and dominant bigs in Kevin Love and Towns in Minnesota.
“I don’t really do much. When I’m with them, I’m just really out there,” Dieng told SI.com. In the Wolves’ first two post-Love seasons, Minnesota mixed and matched frontcourt pairings. With head coach Tom Thibodeau now at the helm, the Wolves have committed to Dieng as Towns’s full-time, starting frontline partner. Thibodeau simply refers to them as “bigs.” Neither truly has a defined position, playing off one another’s strengths. “I’m just gonna live off him,” Dieng said. “But I’m gonna let him run the show and I’ll be there to clean up stuff and make sure I help him finish what he’s trying to get.”
It’s hard to avert your eyes away from Towns’s high-post catches. His tool chest of dribble moves and head fakes and jab steps is such a delicious combination for a 21-year-old. But dart your attention over to Dieng idling on the weakside and you’ll see a motor preparing to roar to life. “Now with me and KAT, it’s been two years. As soon as he’s got the ball I know exactly what he’s trying to do,” Dieng said.
“We have spacing rules that he’s supposed to read the ball on,” Thibodeau told SI.com. “And so there’s situations in which he’s supposed to be on the baseline behind the basket and then we use him to roll in a lot of pick and roll situations just to put pressure on the rim and that’s been one of his strengths.”
Dieng constantly scans defenses for cutting lanes off Towns’s perimeter touches. “I’m either setting an away pin down or I’ll be like looking, see the softest spot.”
When Towns bulldozes towards the basket, Dieng can circle back to the top of the key or float out along the baselines to serve as an outlet, waiting to unfurl one of those deadly midrange jumpers. “I’m just gonna make sure I’m not gonna be in his way and keep the defense occupied so he can make his move,” Dieng said.
But unlike most secondary frontcourt partners, Dieng combines shooting ability with a ferocity on the offensive glass. The moment he knows Towns is set to launch one of his own smooth jumpers, he pounces. “I might as well look for an offensive rebound or something,” he said. Dieng ranks 14th in the league in offensive rebounds.
He wasn’t always this lethally calculated. During his three years at Louisville, the majority of Dieng’s offensive production relied heavily on finishing off dump passes from the Cardinals’ penetrating guards. He finished through contact with regularity, but mostly overpowered opponents around the rim.
Before Towns arrived in Minnesota, Dieng refined his offensive game with Minnesota assistant coach Vince Legarza. They primarily drilled close-range touch shots by simulating game situations: Floating a softball over the outstretched arm of a help defender out of a pick-and-roll. Legarza’s own 6’9” frame allowed Dieng to rehearse before competing against NBA bigs, and when the coach’s wingspan wasn’t enough to obstruct the rim, he’d tape a pad around a wiffleball bat and protect the hoop like a taunting carnival game.
The Wolves made sure to drill Dieng on “touch shots”, rather than describe the weapon as a “floater”, eliminating the image of a 6’0” point guard lofting moonballs 14-feet into the air over 7-foot rim protectors. This season, Dieng is making 61.2% of his shots around the basket, according to Synergy Sports, good for 13th amongst the league’s bigs. “He’s finishing in different ways,” Thibodeau said.
The Timberwolves haven’t done much tinkering with Dieng’s jumper. He built his mechanics under the tutelage of Holger Geschwindner, the German shooting guru who’s famously mentored Dirk Nowitzki for two decades. Dieng and Geschwindner met at the 2009 Basketball Without Borders event in South Africa in which the 19-year-old Dieng was named MVP. In the summer of 2010, Geschwindner stressed balance and mental poise to Dieng in a German gym, a two-week layover between his voyage from Senegal to Huntington Prep. “The way he teaches you how to shoot, it’s very different to others,” Dieng said. “But whenever I feel like I’m getting lost or I don’t make enough shots like I used to, I just go back to the basics.”
Unfortunately for Dieng, his shot isn't similar to Nowitzki’s gorgeous stroke. “It don’t look good, but it’s going in,” he said. Like the triple Dieng drained against the Warriors, he releases all of his shots after snapping the ball seemingly onto his forehead like a slingshot, bending his 7’4” wingspan in half. Geschwindner did manage to translate Nowitzki’s touch, however, as evidenced when Dieng spots up around Towns’s inside touches.
“That’s the biggest thing we’ve worked on for sure,” Towns told SI.com. “I’ve just been trying to make sure, to get people into the spots they like, understanding the offense better, just being smarter logically with the ball, just putting it in spots where they have high percentage shots.”
Towns has assisted to Dieng 11 times so far this season, the most he’s dished to any Wolves teammate, per NBA.com’s tracking data. In turn, Dieng is shooting 61.5% on Towns’s assist opportunities.
Towns has been able to create more offensively for Minnesota while Dieng shoulders a greater defensive load. “Day in and day out, he’s guarding the best big man, he’s sacrificing his body for the whole team,” Wiggins said. Thibodeau clearly prefers hounding premier opposing bigs with Deing’s length, ceaseless energy and athleticism, to both utilize Towns as a weakside rim protector while simultaneously spelling him for his offensive artistry. “He has a defensive mindset, he guards multiple positions,” Thibodeau said. “It allows us to be big. He’s got very good feet. He’s got toughness.”
The next progression in Dieng’s development is the continued expansion of the shooting range he’s already previewed this season. Minnesota plans to complete Dieng’s metamorphosis to the three-point line this off-season, which will in turn stretch opponents even more and provide more space for Towns to carve up defenses and Wiggins to gain post-up opportunities.
“It opens up your cutting game,” Thibodeau explained. “I think anytime guys that can shoot, where the defense has to play away from the basket, now you can start cutting to the basket because the lane’s not clogged up with bigs. I think that puts a lot more pressure on the defense.”
The Warriors naturally present the model for ascension that Minnesota hopes for—developing in-house talent by maximizing every ounce of their youngsters’ potential. The glimpses of the future are tantalizing: Minnesota was only one of two teams to knock off Golden State at home a year ago, after all.
Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and rookie point guard Kris Dunn comprise a promising future, but Dieng may be the bedrock of that foundation. “Gorgui’s one of the key pieces to this team,” Wiggins said. “He does a lot of the stuff that goes unnoticed and no one really talks about.” Fortunately for his teammates, Dieng doesn’t mind flying under the radar one bit.