For Dieng, Hard Work Paid Off

Wolves center Gorgui Dieng, shown above receiving his Western Conference Rookie of the Month award for March, was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team on Thursday. Dieng was selected based on a panel of 125 NBA sportswriters and broadcasters across the U.S. and Canada.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
by Mark Remme
Web Editor

The night Gorgui Dieng received his trophy for being named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March, he downplayed the achievement. He was grateful and appreciated the honor, but it was certainly not something to get caught up on. Dieng’s ambitions in the NBA are simple: Work hard, get better every day, and in doing so  good things will happen.

On Thursday, that mindset led to another accomplishment.

Dieng was named to the 2013-14 NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team for what essentially amounted to his play over the final two months of the season. The Wolves brought Dieng along slowly as a rookie, and in the end that philosophy ended up working wonders for the rookie center out of Louisville. Dieng simply kept working each day with assistant coaches and members of the team’s basketball operations department to keep improving his game. What we witnessed was a player who quickly became a viable rotation player in Minnesota’s front court.

“I was just ready to play. I don’t care if you’re up or down, as long as I am on the court. I’m just trying to play for my teammates and do my job,” Dieng said in late-March. “I always say stats don’t mean anything. Personal stats, I don’t care anything about. I’m more like a team guy and I want to win.”

It was during the final 18 games of the season that we started seeing the fruits of Dieng’s labor first hand. Prior to that point, Wolves players and the coaching staff saw his progress as he worked closely with assistant Jack Sikma and others. But it wasn’t until center Nikola Pekovic got hurt in Charlotte on March 14 that Dieng got his chance to gain big minutes at the NBA level.

In Pekovic’s first go-around with his ankle injury in February, the Wolves used Ronny Turiaf and even Kevin Love at the starting center position. But Turiaf was hurt when Pekovic got injured in mid-March, and the wear and tear Love endured during his time at the 5 was too much to withstand moving forward in the season. So coach Rick Adelman elected to go with Dieng and see if he was ready to handle the physicality and the speed of the NBA game.

It happened at just the right time.

Dieng posted double-doubles in five of his first six starts, including a 22-point, 21-rebound effort against the Rockets in his third career start. That marked the first time in franchise history that a rookie produced a 20-20 game. He also had rebounding efforts of 17 against Memphis and 15 against Atlanta during the month. By the end of March he was averaging 8.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and was shooting 61.3 percent from the floor in 14 games that month. That resulted in the Western Conference Player of the Month honors.

And on the night he received his trophy, he made it another memorable night on the court. He pulled down another 20 rebounds against the Rockets on April 11, then hit the game-winning shot in the paint that gave Minnesota a 112-110 victory.

It’s big, big for him,” said Ronny Turiaf, who sat next to Dieng in the locker room and gave him veteran advice throughout the season. “Big for us a basketball club to be able to show the poise and be able to keep winning basketball games, and [April 11 vs. the Rockets] was one of those historical nights. I feel very, very blessed to be part of it.”

What made Dieng so effective when given the chance? Part of it was the slow nurturing the team afforded him. Dieng was a big part of Louisville’s success and their 2013 national championship, but it took a little time for him to get acquainted with the NBA game. He got into foul trouble early in the season, and his defense lacked familiarity with the league’s pace.

But he continued to work on it—including keeping his hands ready and in position on the defensive end. By March and April, his strides were evident enough to earn him league-wide recognition.

“He’s been unbelievable the last month or so of the season. He’s been just terrific,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Rebounding, he can actually make that 15-foot jump shot. So, he’s going to be a good player. It’s amazing. In college, you rebound, it translates. There are very few things that translate from college to the pros. But, for whatever reason… rebounding does. I don’t know why but it does. And he’s doing that.”

As the league started taking notice, his teammates were excited to see just how far along Dieng had come in the course of five or six months.

“He’s awesome,” guard J.J. Barea said. “I’m so proud of him. He’s working all year, and when the time came he took advantage. He’s just aggressive. He’s aggressive to the ball, and he’s active. He’s a smart kid.”

Dieng finished the year averaging 4.8 points per game while pulling down 5.0 rebounds per night and adding 0.8 blocks per game. He shot 49.8 percent from the field and added 0.5 steals per game.

His ability to impact games became a major storyline toward the end of the 2013-14 campaign. Now, how Dieng will continue improving is the next question as we head into this summer.

He’s certainly got the right mindset to make that happen.

“I choose to be a professional basketball player, and I belong with them and that’s not the first time I say that,” Dieng said in March. “It took a lot of effort, a lot of sacrifices. I get here before the other players and work with A.J. [head video coordinator Adam Johansen] and work with the other coaches that are here, and after practice I stay and work with Jack [Sikma]. So it takes a lot. It’s just the beginning.”