Wolves center Gorgui Dieng isn’t surprised by his recent success on the court. He’s maintained since the Draft last summer he knew he was ready to make the jump to the NBA after his junior year at Louisville, and when he got the opportunity at this level he was ready to make his mark.
The Wolves’ first-year big man won Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors for March, the league announced on Tuesday. Dieng, who picked up minutes due to starting center Nikola Pekovic’s ankle injury, put together a string of five double-doubles in six starts—including the Wolves’ first rookie 20-20 game—and averaged 8.6 points and 8.3 boards in 14 games this March.
He stayed ready throughout the year, and he proved it when he got his chance.
“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 after his 15-point, 15-rebound effort against Atlanta on March 26. “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.”
[Now that he's won Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March, how will Gorgui perform during April? Don't Miss A Moment of the action at Target Center!]
Dieng becomes the fifth player in Wolves history to win the award, following Ricky Rubio (January 2012), Kevin Love (March 2009), Randy Foye (December 2006) and Stephon Marbury (January 1997).
Dieng, like fellow rookies Shabazz Muhammad and Robbie Hummel, have played spot minutes this season based on injury situations and team-by-team matchups. But like the other two, Dieng has been ready to perform when he’s called upon.
He hadn’t played more than 13 minutes in a contest until Feb. 22 in Utah, and after that he went a span of nine games during which he played an average of 4.9 minutes per game.
That’s when the Wolves got word that Pekovic, who missed 13 straight games in January and February, again would miss time with a sore right ankle. Coach Rick Adelman elected to keep Love at the power forward spot and add Dieng into the starting lineup at the 5. He didn’t disappoint.
“It’s been a great sighting,” guard Kevin Martin said. “He got his opportunity, but what he’s doing with his opportunity is something special. Two or three years from now, he’s going to be a really special center in this league. But he’s been poised throughout the year.”
Six times this month, Dieng has collected double-digit rebounds. In five of them, he’s collected double doubles. He put together a 12-point, 11-rebound effort in his first career start on March 16, and two games later he notched a 22-point, 21-rebound game against the Rockets. He’s had 15 or more rebounds in three of his six starts.
The reason the Wolves were interested in making the trade for Dieng on Draft night is because they felt he could protect the rim, rebound the basketball, and be a big that could hold his own in the flow of the offense. He’s already showing signs of those traits, and opposing teams are taking notice.
“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.”
Adelman said Dieng’s rebounding is one of the main highlights. The more he’s played, the more comfortable he’s getting in his role on the court.
You’re also seeing Dieng slowly but surely showcase the diversity of offensive moves we might see for years to come. He’s already displaying the ability to move spin and drive baseline, attack the rim and hit from mid-range.
He’s also on teammates’ radars for potential alley-oop recipients.
“He’s awesome,” 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 isn’t trying to do too much, and he’s not surprising himself on the court. He’s simply trying to be himself.
“Honestly, I’m just playing the game,” he said. “I don’t have nothing that’s going to stop me playing.
“I love basketball, you know? Whether it’s on the street, outside, whatever. I just love playing basketball, and I choose to be a basketball player. So I need to make it fun.”