NBA

NBA AM: Dieng Ready to Prove His Worth

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Now that Gorgui Dieng has signed a four-year contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he’s not ready to stop working now. In fact, the fourth-year big man out of Louisville is ready to prove to the rest of the NBA that he’s worthy of his new $64 million deal.

One of the most hyped teams coming into the 2016-17 season was the Timberwolves. With a roster stocked full of young potential, what’s not to like? Add a proven head coach in Tom Thibodeau into the mix and it’s easy to see why the Timberwolves are being talked about.

Of course, players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn often dominate the chatter among fans, but Dieng has quietly become a key contributor for the Timberwolves. By inking his new deal just last week, it’s clear the team sees his potential.

Dieng has spent time as a starter and role player off of the bench during his first three years in the league. He’s proven to excel in either role, but played even better as a starter – averaging 11.6 points and 8.9 rebounds in 109 career starts. In seven games this season in the starting lineup, he’s averaging a career-high 10.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.1 steals per game.

“I’m happy [with the new contract], but the sky is the limit and it’s not going to stop me,” Dieng told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just going to keep working and playing hard every night. You can get a contract, but you gotta earn it. I want to show that I’m worth every penny and I’m gonna try the best I can to help this team get better and myself.”

Dieng can be one of the more reserved players around the league. Prior to last night’s game against the Orlando Magic, he was sitting quietly at his locker studying film on the Magic. Kris Dunn was sitting next to him listening to music in his headphones, but Dieng was unbothered. He smiled when he was asked about playing for his new head coach.

“Everybody knows he’s one of the top coaches in this league,” Dieng said. “He’s very defensive-minded. I was very excited because I know that could be good for me and it could be very good for the team too because we need to get better defensively. If he emphasizes everything he’s teaching us, once we get it down, we’re gonna be tough to beat.”

The addition of Thibodeau as the team’s head coach over the offseason was a move that many on the team were excited about, Dieng especially. Thibodeau’s teams have historically performed well on the defensive end and that’s a culture that he’s trying to build in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have improved from being ranked 27th in defense last season to 20th so far this season.

Dieng is a player that is openly willing to do the dirty work on defense, which seems to be exactly the type of player that Thibodeau likes. Dieng currently ranks near the top of the league in a couple key hustle stat categories. He’s fourth in charges drawn and fourth in two-point shots contested. It’s his energy and hustle that is a huge part of the Timberwolves’ defense.

“I think I need to be the guy on this team that just does all the dirty work because we got a lot of young guys,” Dieng said. “We need to have somebody willing to do other stuff like taking charges, blocking shots, rebounding, setting screens [and] rolling to get other guys open. I’m gonna do the best I can to make sure I’m trying to get the job done in those areas.”

“He’s invaluable to our team,” Thibodeau added. “He does a lot of the dirty work that oftentimes goes unnoticed, but it’s critical for winning. Protecting the basket, closing down the lane, communicating, moving his feet well [and] he’s a great screener; when you come off of him, you’re open. He makes quick decisions with the ball. He’s critical for us.”

Having a coach like Thibodeau to lead these younger players could be what is needed to get this group into the playoffs. Many applauded the organization for being able to land Thibodeau as head coach. In addition to being the coach, he is also the president of basketball operations. Players have said in the past how beneficial it is playing for someone that handles both jobs since they know firsthand what sort of players are needed on the floor.

The team is just 2-5 through the first seven games of the season so they still have much to learn. Young teams will battle through stretches of inconsistencies throughout the season and learn how to close out tight games down the stretch. They’ve had chances to win most of their games thus far and could be looking at a better record had a few plays gone their way. The team understands they still have a long way to go.

“Everybody’s saying we can be very good, but I think we’ve got to start getting on track before it gets too late,” Dieng said. “Right now, we’re 2-5 [and] I think a lot of games we beat ourselves. When you’re on the road, you’ve got to play tougher. I think we just need to start early now and try and figure this thing out and try and get wins.”

Heading into the season, many predicted the Timberwolves would be able to make a jump in their rebuild. They’ve assembled one of the best young cores with several first-round draft picks in Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and Dieng. Some writers have the Timberwolves in the playoffs, while others believe they can be in the playoff race all season long.

With so much talent on the team, they’re going to be on the rise over the course of the next several seasons. Whether or not that rise up the ranks brings them to the postseason this year, it seems inevitable it’ll happen sooner than later. For now, the team has to manage lofty expectations that they haven’t had to deal with in past seasons.

“It’s a lot of pressure but good pressure,” Dieng said. “It’s gonna help us to be better and work harder. We know everybody’s rushing it and we’re trying to meet our expectations. It’s not gonna happen overnight, [we have to] take it one step at a time. If you stick as a team and stick together, I think we can make it happen.”

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About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer entering his fourth season with Basketball Insiders. He covers the league out of Orlando and Miami, focusing on the Southeast Division.

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