PORTLAND, ORE. – Gorgui Dieng played three seasons for Rick Pitino at Louisville, so the Timberwolves center knows a little something about being coached “hard,” a word interim coach Sam Mitchell chooses occasionally to describe his approach this season — particularly with Dieng.
At age 26, in his third NBA season and given his collegiate past playing for a demanding and combustible coach, Dieng has accepted it and played on, all the way to Friday’s 20-point, 15-rebound night in a 103-90 loss at Utah.
“You know, he’s that type of coach,” Dieng said. “To be honest, it was tough for me when we started the season, but I just embrace it and understand it will not last forever. I just pay attention to what he says and the details what he wants me to do and not listen to the way he says it.”
Dieng has played more together with rookie and No. 1 overall draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns as the season has progressed, more often than not starting beside him when Kevin Garnett has been unable to start at power forward.
It’s a pairing in which Dieng has expanded his game to play that power-forward spot, ranging out on the floor to defend more mobile opponents and display offensively a growing midrange game.
“I think I’ve improved as a basketball player and as a man as well,” Dieng said. “Maybe two or three years ago, I wouldn’t respond like this. I think I respond in the right way.”
He credits three years of playing for Pitino for that.
“Nobody’s going to treat me the way he treated me in college, which was very good for me,” Dieng said.
“He had me ready for the NBA. If I didn’t have a coach like that, I don’t think I would have handled a coach like Sam this way.”
Old school in many of his ways, Mitchell praises what he calls Dieng’s improved rebounding and defense, particularly in pick-and-roll situations, and deems Dieng’s skill when setting screens a difference maker for his team.
“He works hard, he’s getting a lot better,” Mitchell said. “When he sets good screens and rolls to the basket, it just makes us a better basketball team. It just opens up spacing and creates more opportunities for guys.”
Dieng says he is growing increasingly “more comfortable” playing out on the floor as a power forward while Towns plays center.
“Anytime we play a big offensive threat, they put me on him,” Dieng said, referring to opposing big men. “I get a lot of ‘4s’ [power forwards] and I think I do a good job on them, and I think you can see I can play two positions, both ‘4’ and ‘5’ [center]. I think I’ve improved doing that, and Coach has confidence I can play and guard power forwards. I think that’s a big improvement. I think I’m playing good team basketball right now.”
Towns scored a career-high 32 points Friday at Utah and with 12 rebounds as well became the youngest player in Wolves history to record a 30/10 game. He became the youngest player in the NBA to do so since Kevin Durant’s 41-point, 10-rebound game on Dec. 8, 2008.
Yet he criticized his own performance, calling it “terrible” on the same night fellow No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins made two of 11 shots, scored five points and didn’t have a rebound or assist.
Towns called Dieng the saving grace Friday, when Utah outscored the Wolves 14-0 to end the third quarter.
“He played outstanding,” Towns said. “Without him, who knows what this game would have been?”
Dieng followed Wednesday’s season-high 21 points against Oklahoma City with Friday’s 20-15 game.
He calls his season a product of preparation and doing as he’s told.
“I choose this job,” he said. “If you’re a pro, you have to handle yourself like a pro. You listen to the coach and do the stuff he wants me to do.”