Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng displayed savvy far beyond his rookie status both during and after Sunday’s victory over Sacramento at Target Center.
First, he provided a career night across the board in his first NBA start with 37 minutes, 12 points, 11 rebounds, five blocked shots and a purposely missed free throw with a second left in a two-point game.
Then he looked at a media throng gathered around his locker for the first time all season and said, “I don’t speak English.”
Of course he does, and four other languages as well.
He also spoke the international language of basketball during the most expansive night of his young career. Teammate Kevin Martin said his team couldn’t have won without a rookie who has worked on his game while patiently waiting for a big chance that finally came Sunday.
“I think he has you all fooled if you don’t think he complains,” Martin said, smiling. “He’s a great kid. He puts in a lot of hard work, very professional. It’s a great moment just to see him play like he did.”
Filling in for injured Nikola Pekovic, Dieng started and played more minutes than in his previous six games combined — and by 15 minutes his season high.
Dieng played because Pekovic’s troublesome right ankle was too sore and also because Sacramento started 7-footer Aaron Gray instead of star DeMarcus Cousins, who was rested for the night.
“He’s going to have to play if Pek’s out for any length of time,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said.
And play Dieng did, avoiding the frequent foul trouble that limited him earlier this season and providing the Wolves with a shot-blocking presence they sorely lack, particularly while veteran backup Ronny Turiaf’s bone bruise in his knee keeps him out.
Dieng did so without having to face Cousins, the kind of physical presence Adelman has tried to limit Dieng guarding.
“I faced a lot of the guys in the league already,” Dieng said. “I played against [Andrew] Bynum, I played against [Dwight] Howard, all of these guys. I choose to be a basketball player and I don’t mind facing them. ... I think I belong here and I’ll be ready.”
He blocked five shots Sunday for a Wolves team that’s last in the league in that department, averaging only 3.5 a game.
But Adelman wants Dieng to focus less on blocking every shot, as he often seems to want to do, and think more about simply forcing opponents to change their shots when he looms.
“You don’t have to block it, you just have to bother ’em,” Adelman said, noting that Dieng has to keep his hands high to avoid fouling. “He just has a lot of habits he has to break.”
But Dieng — selected 21st overall in the NBA draft last summer after he helped Louisville win the 2013 NCAA title — knows who and what he is.
“Everybody knows I’m a shot blocker, and I try my best to protect the rim,” Dieng said. “When my teammates get beat, I will make sure I will be there.”
Adelman has praised Dieng’s work ethic all season, and credits that for allowing the little-used rookie to play as long as he did Sunday.
“He played 37 minutes and he handled it,” Adelman said. “You’ve got to give him credit for all the extra work he has been doing.”
Dieng, who averages only seven minutes a game, said doing so has never been a question.
“It just shows I come into this league and I was ready, I was prepared,” Dieng said. “Whether I was going to get minutes or not, I’d keep working. I think you should work more when you don’t play a lot. I didn’t get minutes. I didn’t get frustrated. … I have an All-Star player ahead of me, I have Pek ahead of me. I’m just learning under them. I understand I am a rookie.
“Is it fun? No, but I’ve never been frustrated. I’ve been working, I’ve been on time. I just keep working and hopefully my time will come one day.”