The relationship between two numbers have come to define Gorgui Dieng: minutes played and salary. During the 2017-18 season, Dieng played 16.9 minutes per game (in 79 total games) while earning $14.1 million in salary. Then in 2018-19, the minutes-to-dollars-earned ratio dipped below 1.0 when Dieng’s minutes fell to 13.6 per night while his salary escalated to $15.2 million. Even in the moments of those two seasons that Dieng was positively impacting the game, the weight of the salary remained hard to ignore.
It’s not Dieng’s fault that Tom Thibodeau handed him a four-year, $64 million extension in the summer of 2016. Who wouldn’t accept more money to do their job? The move to offer the extension has just proven to be misguided. In hindsight, with the way the league has evolved and the presence of Karl-Anthony Towns on the roster, the possibility of Dieng’s marginal value ever being worth that price tag was an unnecessary long shot to take. And now, here we are: Dieng is set to earn $16.2 million this season and it’s hard to hypothetically craft a rotation in which he again even finds those 13.6 minutes per night. It’s not as if Dieng is a useless player, but the signings of Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell this summer push Dieng — and his contract — toward full-on sunken cost land.
Just as it is the goal with Andrew Wiggins, the goal with Dieng should not include an expectation of recouping all of the contract’s value. Instead, it’s about finding some utility — from anywhere, in any role — that make the contributions felt. He’s on the team and under contract for two more seasons, so this season is about making the most of that reality. And even if that isn’t the production that is typically expected from a player who will earn 15% of the salary cap, it’s time to accept that.
The first strength that often comes to mind with Dieng is his jumper. It isn’t a pretty (or quick) jumper but fans who have been paying attention know that Dieng has been money from the mid-range for the majority of his career. The issue is just that, though: mid-range Js just aren’t that even valuable — even for Dieng who has canned 45.7% of those in his career.
Instead, the real area that Dieng has been a needle-mover for good is on the defensive end. Kevin Garnett taught Dieng to be a vocal defender, and he has never let go of that. And it’s meaningful; Dieng isn’t just some try-hard screaming on defense to gather the coach’s favor — he connects the defense with his communication. And really, it is breakdowns of defensive connectivity that have come to define the Wolves’ inability to execute on that end.
In the aggregate, there have been comparatively fewer defensive breakdowns when Dieng plays. And given the alternative realities, that makes his ability to defensively execute his greatest strength. It is the reason that Dieng and Towns have consistently posted positive point differentials that spite a team that has had a propensity to, well, give up more points than they score. Maybe the league has passed up the feasibility of Dieng and Towns two-man pairings, but that doesn’t mean Dieng can’t individually be an impactful defender — even if that is simply in a distant backup role to KAT.
Fluid Shooting Stroke
In his career, Dieng has attempted 1,078 mid-range jumpers (shots from 10 feet to just inside the 3-point arc). And from that range, he has made a well-above league average 45.7% of his jumpers. But the issue is that a 46% 2-pointer is the equivalent of a 31% 3-point shot. Worse: Dieng’s shot mix has not made up for the disparity.
The issue with Dieng has never been that his jumper is bad, per se; it is that he takes the less valuable shots when he takes a jumper. The 187 3-point field goals Dieng has attempted in his career only makeup under seven percent of his shot mix. And this problem is borne out of the notion that the 3s he does attempt almost exclusively come from the corners. Of Dieng’s 187 career 3-balls, nine have been full-court heaves; 126 have come from the corner; and only 52 have come from above the break (the non-corner three portions of the 3-point arc).
His 3-point frequency has increased over the course of his career but the next horizon is the above-the-break 3. It’s easier said than done to just step back — but it is easy to say that if Dieng was able to move a chunk of his mid-range jumpers beyond the arc that he would likely become a more effective (or at least more modern) big man. The stroke has always been there, he’s just gotta stretch it out. Maybe a coach that’s a little more into 3s than his predecessor will make a push for that shift.
If Dieng were a book, you would know how the story ends after reading the first chapter. When he knocks down his first couple jumpers or makes a big defensive stop early in the game, it’s going to be a good run for Dieng 99% of the time. But if he picks up a foul or two early — particularly if he disagrees with the call — or misses a bunny of a shot in the paint, things are very likely to end poorly.
Dieng has never established one specific skill that serves as a baseline for his game-to-game to performance. His greatest weakness is perhaps his lack of one true and consistent strength. Because of this, he is a teeter-totter; a player that always goes one way or the other.
The Year He Was Born
Dieng, 29, isn’t old but he was born into the wrong generation of NBA basketball. Bigs who were frisky defenders and flashed shooting chops from 15 feet were weapons a decade ago. But in today’s NBA, a league that asks for specialization from role players, he just doesn’t quite fit.
Along those lines, and in what is likely to be diminished role this season, Dieng would bode well to work on specializing this season. If he can be the technically sound big who knows the scheme inside and out on the defensive end, he can help. And if on offense he limits himself from attempting to do the things he thinks he can do and focuses on a limited list of things he knows he can do, he’ll begin to develop a baseline. And that would go a long way for one of the Wolves most inconsistent players.