Raised in Senegal and now pursuing his professional life in America, Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng speaks five languages, and another one that Rick Adelman and any other coach understands.
During rookie karaoke night at training camp in Mankato last week, he stood on a chair and sang Happy Birthday to head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam in English, French and his native Wolof without ever demonstrating his knowledge of either Italian or Spanish.
During preseason games against Toronto and Milwaukee this week, he showed, even given his rookie status and late start in the game, he’s fluent in basketball.
“He’s a smart player,” Adelman said. “It doesn’t take long watching him to see that he knows how to play.”
Dieng is just 23 and didn’t seriously start playing the game until he was a teenager, but maybe there’s a reason his given name means “old man” in his native language.
On Thursday in Sioux Falls, Dieng blocked four shots and altered others in 24-plus minutes off the bench for a team that has invested more than $120 million in bruising big men Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love but didn’t have a natural, forceful rim protector until they drafted Dieng out of national champion Louisville with the 21st pick in last summer’s draft.
“He can do that, he’ll block shots,” Adelman said. “He gives us a presence, we have nobody else who does that. He alters shots. He’s very long. He’s very smart defensively, too. He’s just got a good sense of how to play, and he’s not going to be intimidated by anybody. His length is going to bother people.”
The Wolves made a draft-night trade to move down five spots from the ninth pick they owned to draft UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad. They moved up five spots from the 26th pick they owned to draft Dieng because of his 6-11 height and 7-4 wingspan as well as a combination of shot-blocking instincts and mobility that helps him defend pick-and-rolls.
“He made one play where I’m not sure what he was doing, trapping at half-court,” Adelman said after Thursday’s victory over the Bucks in Sioux Falls. “But he got back in a hurry. That’s one thing about him: He can move.”
Dieng also has impressed Adelman so far with a peacefulness in how he plays that belies his age and lack of experience.
“I’ve been kind of surprised with just how calm he plays,” Adelman said. “He goes out and plays his game. You didn’t really see that with him this summer [in the Las Vegas Summer League], but he has been like that all through our whole camp. He has played with a lot of composure.”
Dieng simply shrugged his shoulders when asked about the difference and that calm and composure with which Adelman has seen him play.
“Whether summer, preseason or regular season, when I step on the floor I just want to practice as hard as I can and play as good as I can,” Dieng said. “To me, I just worry about things I can control: I can be on time. I can play hard. I can play defense. Those are things I can control.”
And block every shot, right? At least that looks like what he is trying to do.
“You said that,” he said with a grin.
He was drafted for his defensive possibilities but also possesses a midrange shooting game, passing ability and an offensive post-up game that fellow rookie draft pick Lorenzo Brown youthfully compared to Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.
“He’s a beast,” Brown said. “A lot of people don’t know what kind of moves he has. He’s kind of like Olajuwon down there because he can move either way. Everybody knows he can block shots — I haven’t been down there yet so he hasn’t caught me yet — and he can definitely do that. That’s what he does.”
Dieng playfully brushed off such a comparison after Thursday’s game in Toronto, saying “I caught it on the wrong block” when apparently everybody knows Olajuwon loved working from the left block down low.
“Yes, very premature, very,” he said about Brown’s comparison.
“I’m definitely working on my game. I’m just a rookie and I’m learning. I’m just going to be real patient, take time and learn the game.”