It’s a common expression in sports: the most popular player is the backup. Typically, the backup is a bit of an unknown quantity, like a rookie that fans are just dying to see more of. Usually their fortune is also another’s misfortune that allows them to finally see some playing time. When they underperform they simply fade into the background, back into irrelevancy. However, when they do succeed– often times as the result of opponent’s not having a scouting report on them– the people demand more and more of them. Suddenly, it’s a case of out with the old and in with the new despite the fact that there may be nothing wrong with the incumbent.
This didn’t take long to happen with Timberwolves fans and Gorgui Dieng. Dieng was a first round pick, but struggled to find playing time early on due to a penchant for fouling and struggling offensively. Fans were intrigued by Dieng’s shot blocking ability in part because Nikola Pekovic was not the rim protecting type. Then, when Pekovic went through a rash of ankle injuries in February and now this month, Dieng was going to have to see more time. Sure enough, Dieng was successful. He was blocking shots, rebounding and even exhibited a surprising ability to put the ball in the hole. Now, a small but vocal part of the fanbase is under the belief that the Timberwolves would be better off trading Pekovic to start Dieng after six solid NBA starts.
Coming into the season the Timberwolves had Pekovic firmly entrenched as their starter, but little in the way of a backup center. Ronny Turiaf is still capable, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and is susceptible to nagging injuries. And then there was Dieng, who was considered a bit of a project at the beginning of the season. While Pekovic still produces at a high-level, he too is likely to miss a few games here and there, making a strong backup a necessity.
Dieng’s rise in Pekovic’s absence has shown the Timberwolves that they may very well have found that backup center. While Pekovic has been dealing with bursitis in his ankle, Dieng has averaged seven points, 6.4 rebounds and a block per game in eight games in March. Additionally, and not unlike Pekovic’s early-NBA struggles, Dieng has learned to drastically cut his fouls. Per 36 minutes, Dieng has curbed his fouls enough to bring his average to under seven to 6.3. This is really the first reason that Dieng is unable to play heavy minutes yet, but he is learning. After all, Pekovic averaged 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes in his rookie year, but is down to just 2.8.
You have to remember that we are dealing with an impossibly small sample size and teams will begin to figure Dieng the more he plays. I can’t imagine the team remotely entertaining the idea of trading their franchise center for a rookie who hasn’t proven that his production of late is sustainable. Besides, good teams have depth and since Dieng comes at a inconsequential $1.3 million, the team can afford to have both. Not only can they afford to have both, but it makes sense to have both given their contrasting styles.
First off, Pekovic brings the offense that Dieng does not. Pekovic is having arguably the best year of his career by just about any metric you want to use. His efficiency and scoring are up while his usage rate has remained the same as last season, but his turnover percentage has dropped. On the other hand, according to MySynergySports.com, Dieng has not outperformed Pekovic in any category. Sure, he is shooting 53.7 percent in eight games this month, but we have no idea if this is sustainable, especially when weighed against the rest of his body of work. However, Dieng did shoot 54.5 percent in three years at Louisville, so it’s not as if he’s never shot this well; we just haven’t seen enough of him at the next level to keep this up.
Then there’s the matter of defense. Pekovic provides the immovable object in the paint, but he is also slow-footed. Defensively, he has the instincts to be a capable defender and the numbers back that up, but he is going to have natural limitations. This is evident in post-up situations where Pekovic’s points per possession average of 0.74 ranks 54th and holds opponents to just 37 percent shooting. Conversely, Dieng’s slender frame does not make for good post-up defense and opponents have shot 54.8 percent against him in those situations. Pekovic, 28, has learned through years of professional basketball experience in the NBA and Europe to understand things like angles and leverage to make up for his lack of speed. If Pekovic is out of position, it’s usually because he’s just not able to get there quick enough, but Dieng is still susceptible to being in the wrong place. Improving on this is another way Dieng can cut back on his fouls in addition to continuing to keep his hands up, which Rick Adleman has been encouraging him to do. And as not-fast as Pekovic may be, Basketball-Reference.com says that the Timberwolves are just +0.4 better with him off of the floor.
Don’t get me wrong; Dieng makes the Timberwolves better defensively. The team fares 4.4 points better with him on the floor than off of it, which is impressive considering his still-developing offensive game. Instead, Dieng makes his defensive impact felt in other ways. For one, he is an excellent shot blocker. Not only is he averaging one block per game in his eight starts this month, but he is averaging 2.8 per 36, which is encouraging. Shot blocking ability is an instinct that you either have or you don’t, and Dieng has shown for years that timing to send shots the other way. This ability has forced opponents into spot up situations where they are shooting 21.7 percent against the rookie from Louisville. Furthermore, his 9.1 defensive rebounds per 36 also make it easier to keep Pekovic on the bench since they don’t sacrifice much on the glass. In fact, Dieng is averaging 6.4 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game in March, which has been of great benefit to the team missing their second-best player.
There is also a great deal of context to what Dieng has done. His 20-point/20-rebound game came against a Dwight-less Rockets team and he posted five blocks against the Cousins-less Kings. Not to discredit his performance by any means, but these are important things to consider in assessing his recent surge.
Finally, as I said above, good teams have depth. With Pekovic and Dieng, the Timberwolves have the ability to play to the night-to-night matchups and adjust the players’ minutes accordingly. Going against a post-up heavy team? Well, Pekovic should probably receive the lion’s share of the minutes. Or, for example, if they are playing a team that excels at penetration, put Dieng out there for a for more to keep the opponent honest. Having a viable backup option at center also enables the Timberwolves to rest Pekovic more and hopefully reduce some of those incidental injuries that he is bound to accrue given his playing style. And if he’s capable of shooting fifty percent while Pekovic is on the bench, then that is just bonus. Making Turiaf their third center out of necessity is also for the best on a team with playoff aspirations.
While Dieng’s performance has been a bit of a revelation as the once unknown quantity, the Timberwolves don’t need to fix a thing with their depth at center. Should Dieng continue to sustain this level they’ve filled a position of need on the cheap that also complements the skill sets of their best players. People have long talked about how the Timberwolves need an athletic rim protector next to Kevin Love and one and now they may have one. It is certainly true that the backup always seems to be the most popular player, but Timberwolves fans should be celebrating the good fortune of having one of the best centers in the league and possibly a capable backup behind him. It’s great to see Dieng’s play as well as he has, but there is no denying that the Timberwolves are better with both Pekovic and Dieng.