Everyone knows upon whom the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves depends, right? Karl-Anthony Towns is one of if not the most talented young big men in a league that’s brimming with them (Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, etc.), the reigning Rookie of the Year, and already ahead of schedule as the single most important player on the team. Just behind him in importance is Andrew Wiggins: brimming with potential, often showing flashes of it being realized, but still growing into his skin. Then there’s Zach LaVine, the gifted athlete who might not have as high an absolute ceiling as Towns and Wiggins but who may be closer right now to achieving it as a sweet shooting (.500 on 7.3 3-point attempts per game), rim-rocking offensive focal point.
So after three games, who’s the Wolves’ current leader in PER, box plus-minus, win shares per 48, rebound rate and just about every other advanced stat? It’s Gorgui Dieng, currently the team’s fifth lowest paid player, but theoretically its highest after signing a new 4-year, $64 million contract.
Is it possible that Dieng is just way more important to the future of the Wolves than we might think?
Well, first of all, we’re talking about a vanishingly small sample size and a particular set of games that are hard to parse. In the first two games of the season, the Wolves leapt out to huge leads only to surrender them in a pair of third quarters that were almost ludicrously terrible, quarters in which they were outscored 57-28 across the two games.
Then in a rematch against the Memphis Grizzlies in which head coach David Fizdale made the decision to rest both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol and start a lineup that might have been a championship hopeful in the D-League (maybe), the Wolves again got off to a hot start but sustained it. Memphis’ last lead was at 12-11 with 7:09 remaining in the first and Minnesota would eventually push the lead all the way to 40 midway through the third.
So everything about the season so far feels like an outlier, but in the midst of all the noise, Dieng is — frankly — killing it.
His box plus-minus of 8.1 is more than half again as much as that of the next player on the list, Kris Dunn (4.7). His 25.3 PER is equivalent to James Harden’s eight-best PER in the league last season. His total rebound percentage of 19.4% nearly doubles Towns’ 11.5% and his offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) is a staggering 146 while his defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is an equally impressive 96. He is the leader in both for the team.
Sure, he’s had some of his usual lapses, especially on the defensive end where he has sometimes refused to commit completely to his role in the scheme, but the team as a whole has been wildly inconsistent. Within that framework, Dieng has clearly been their best player in the early going.
The Wolves won’t always need him to be that guy. Towns will get his head straightened out before long, Wiggins either will or won’t completely grow into his potential and LaVine’s scoring is likely to become a more consistent option in late-game situations than Dieng’s ever could be. Although it was mostly effective down the stretch last season, I felt that the pairing of Towns and Dieng in the frontcourt wasn’t the long-term solution for the team in an era when the league seems to be going smaller and smaller. I hoped for Nemanja Bjelica to show that he could be a stretch-4 with good enough defense to warrant starting him over Dieng. But what Dieng’s shown us in the early going here has me reconsidering that.
If everything that Dieng can do can be slotted in alongside the team’s young core, there’s every reason to believe he can be more than just a complementary player: he can be a part of that core, and an essential one. If that comes to pass, the deal he just signed will look like an absolute steal, even if it makes him the highest paid player on the team in the short term. Deal’s like Dieng’s are exactly the kind of far-thinking bargain that team’s have to make in the present in order to sustain a dynasty down the road.
It’s hard to imagine Dieng’s steady diet of midrange jumpers, weakside blocks and putbacks as the kind of highlights that can make a player the face of a franchise, that get him the big endorsement deals. But if Dieng can keep playing the way he has to open the season, he won’t have to be mixtape-worthy to become an integral part the Wolves for years to come.