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Towns Out Against OKC, Teammates Step Up Before His Imminent Return

by Katie Davidson
Digital Content Associate

Wolves head coach Ryan Saunders announced at Monday’s shootaround that Karl-Anthony Towns will not be available for Monday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Target Center due to an illness. But, according to Saunders, there is hope that we see Towns return to the lineup soon.

“He’s very close,” Saunders said, “but he’s not in the facility because he’s got a bug.”

Saunders went on to say it’s realistic we see Towns play later in their four-game week. The Wolves will host the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, face the Pacers in Indiana on Friday and host Toronto on Saturday.

Towns has missed the Wolves’ last 13 games due to a knee injury he suffered in the Wolves’ Dec. 13 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was also announced that Towns was suffering from an illness — which he’s still recovering from — before the Wolves’ Saturday game in Houston.

“We value our players’ health, and we want (Towns) to be 100% when he comes back,” Saunders said. “What might look early on as a couple of games … he didn’t really respond early. We want these guys when they get out there and they get on the court that they’re fully healthy, because he’s a huge part of our future. He knows that, we know that, and I think we all understand that.

“It’s like anything — you see how guys’ bodies respond on a day-to-day basis to everything.”

While Towns’ body hasn’t recovered as quickly as originally thought, Gorgui Dieng has stepped up in his teammate’s absence.

Dieng has served as the Wolves’ starting center since Towns’ injury and has averaged 26.9 minutes, 13.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks during that time. Dieng has also recorded a net rating of plus-2.9 derived from a 103.8 offensive rating and a 100.9 defensive rating and is shooting a phenomenal 43.3% from 3-point range.

“A lot of times when guys are not available and you get opportunities, you’re able to show the work that you’ve put in when the cameras aren’t around and when coaches aren’t around and in the summertime,” Saunders said. “Gorgui has worked hard at that.

“I remember a few years ago when I was working with him as an assistant. We had just started shooting above-the-break 3s, and it was kind of one of those things that you joke about early on because he had never really done that. Now, you see him picking and popping, he poses another threat for defenses. It’s a credit to the way he’s worked.”

The game has evolved, and so has Dieng. However, that’s not to say Dieng’s work habits have changed over time — they’ve always been this steady. He’s just now getting a larger chance to put his progress on display.

“I just started playing,” Dieng said when asked how much he’s reinvented his game. “I wasn’t playing in the past two, three years; I didn’t get minutes to play. I think every time I play, I produce. That’s what it is. I work on my game every year. This past summer, before I left, I talked to Ryan and asked him what he wanted me to work on. He told me to work on my 3-point shot, and I did. I’m just here. I’ve got a chance to play, and I show what I can do.”

Dieng also shared that he believes his shot continues to fall because of the confidence he has in his game, something he believes is essential for all players who want to find success in the NBA.

“Whether you’re playing five minutes to 20, whatever you do, you have to be confident,” Dieng said. “If you don’t stay confident, you basically won’t do anything in this league.

“Mentally, you have to be very confident. I mean, me personally, I don’t care what happens, what people say or what they think. I care less. I know what I can do, I know the time and effort I put into it, so I’m just as good as anybody else.”

It seems as though Jarrett Culver has soaked up Dieng’s lesson as of late.

Since Dec. 30, Culver is averaging 15.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks. He’s scored 10 or more points in the Wolves’ last seven games and continues to be a reliable force on defense.

“I always try to keep my confidence up as high as I can,” Culver said. “It never gets low, because I know at the end of the day, I’m going to keep working hard and the results are going to show if you keep working.”

Culver is almost halfway done with his first NBA season and can tell the game is beginning to slow down for him. Saunders has taken note, too.

“To see Jarrett almost halfway through his season climb and develop the way he has, it’s very encouraging,” Saunders said. “I’d say it’s work ethic. He’s a guy who’s always in the gym. But it’s also him being comfortable, too, and I think the more you play, the more the game will slow down for you as a young player.”

Without Towns on Monday, the Wolves will need Culver and the entire team to continue to be aggressive to beat the scrappy Thunder who defeated the Andrew-Wiggins-less Wolves 139-127 in overtime on Dec. 6. It’s pretty hard to forget how that game went down. Jordan Bell was called for a delay of game because of his untucked jersey, the Thunder went on to hit a game-tying shot that sent the game to overtime, and the Wolves looks shell-shocked in the extra five-minute period.

Saunders said his players may be more anxious to defeat the Thunder considering their last matchup but admitted the Dec. 6 game wasn’t lost in the final minute of regulation.

“There were things that we needed to do better early in the game,” Saunders said.

Saunders was unsatisfied with the Wolves’ contest and pursuit of pick-and-rolls and inability to slow down Chris Paul’s midrange game in their first matchup with the Thunder. The Thunder punished the Wolves for their lacking defensive positioning and hit 20 of their 21 third-quarter, free-throw attempts.

“There were a lot of things that we could have done better, but I think for everybody it stung after that game and it kind of stunned us for a minute,” Saunders said. “But these guys have fought back, they fought through that, and I think they’re looking forward to this game.”

The Wolves and Thunder are scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. CT. You can tune in on Fox Sports North or 830 WCCO, and you can find tickets for Monday night’s game here.

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