Gorgui Dieng comes through with breakout game in place of Pekovic
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Lacking ailing center Nikola Pekovic, coach Rick Adelman didn't hide his concern early Sunday evening over how the Minnesota Timberwolves would be able to counter the size disparity in the post against Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins.
Adelman had reason to be worried. Pekovic's absence, coupled with the Wolves' playoff hopes having been diminished to a faint glow, gave Sunday the makings of being a lackluster night against the lowly Kings.
But just prior to tipoff, the Wolves received a slight reprieve. Tendonitis in his right knee forced Cousins to sit out the game.
"I didn't expect that, but we didn't have our big guy playing either. Maybe they were trying to be fair," Adelman said, flashing a sly grin.
It all ended up setting the stage for a surprising breakout night for Minnesota rookie center Gorgui Dieng in a back and forth game.
With only a month left in season and little chance of making the playoffs, the Wolves have reached a juncture where it becomes more about silver linings, which can provide a minor boost, a sign of hope for a better future.
Dieng came through with one, making his first career start a memorable one. The 6-foot-11, 238-pound former Louisville star has battled through a rookie year of limited playing time and a steep learning curve adapting to the NBA level.
Dieng has bided his time, observing from the bench, trying to the weather the ups and downs and putting in the needed practice hours. Sunday brought a reassuring glimpse of potential, of what could be possible for the rookie center.
Dieng rolled to his first double-double (12 points and 11 rebounds), and impressed by swatting away five shots from Sacramento. It was the pick-me-up the Wolves had to have.
"Without him, we wouldn't have won the game," said guard Kevin Martin after the Wolves withstood a late Kings charge to win 104-102. "It was just a great moment to see him play the way he did."
Without Pekovic and injured backup center Ronny Turiaf, the Wolves' limited options in the low post become clearly exposed. Both injuries have shifted the spotlight and steady dose of pressure to Dieng.
At least for one night, he flashed the ability to respond when he was badly needed.
Dieng, usually soft-spoken, but straight-forward with reporters, admitted to feeling a surge of excitement heading into the game, knowing it would be his first chance at a long strand of playing time.
Against Sacramento, Dieng played a career-high 37 minutes - six minutes more than what he had logged in his previous eight games combined.
Throughout the season, Dieng has rarely deviated from his stance of quietly awaiting his opportunity, while doing the work in practice necessary to receive a payoff when his chance finally arrived.
"Coming into this league, I was ready," Dieng said. "I was prepared whether I got minutes or not I was just going to keep working. I think you should work more when you don't play a lot. I didn't get minutes. I never got frustrated. Just keep working and hopefully my time will come some day."
Dieng is likely to get several more chances to build off his standout night as the season winds to a close. A timetable on Pekovic's return is undetermined, and Turiaf is still working through pain in his bruised right knee.
While the Wolves' season appears destined to go down as an overall disappointment, a bit of solace may be taken in any developmental leaps made by Dieng, or fellow rookies Shabazz Muhammad and Robbie Hummel, in the final weeks.