Like Flip Saunders before him, Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell uses a certain, somewhat secretive statistical formula — based upon a player’s practice performance — to decide just who may shoot three-pointers and who may not.
That’s not to say he doesn’t sometimes allow the human element of personal persuasion.
Consider third-year center Gorgui Dieng a case in point.He’s a big man whose primary jobs are defense, rebounding and banging big bodies. He’s also one of the many big men in the NBA these days who believes he has a touch of guard in him.
Dieng made exactly one three in each of his first two pro seasons. He has matched each season’s total in four preseason games after he made one in Wednesday’s 89-87 victory over Toronto in Ottawa. He made another with his foot on the three-point line.
“I always make him step in when we have our shooting drills,” Mitchell said, “and he tells me every day, ‘Coach, I can shoot the three.’ ”
In his first two seasons, Dieng polished a shot banked off the backboard from either side of the basket, the one that Tim Duncan has made a career from nearly these past 20 years. Now, Dieng is set on expanding his range, with the corner three-pointer being his chosen spot.
“I’ve been working on it,” he said.
Wednesday, he set up Toronto defenders by stretching the floor with that outside threat. When they bit and closed out him, he faked a shot from well beyond the free-throw line and drove past two of them as they leapt and down the lane for a slam dunk during a closing 17-12 run that won the game.
“It’s not a shot I’m going to rely on just to score,” Dieng said, “but if I can hit it once in a while, it will help us.”
He apparently had made it often enough in practice to get the necessary permission in games.
“He works on it,” Mitchell said. “That corner three, if he’s open and he has his feet set, we’ll let him shoot that shot.”
Mitchell calls himself pleased so far with a productive center rotation in which rookie Karl-Anthony Towns starts and Dieng comes off the bench.
“Karl is watching him, and G is teaching,” Mitchell said. “I really like the combination of those two guys because they’re supportive of each other.”
Dieng missed a couple of shots around the basket but made three from 18 feet or more. He went 4-for-4 from the field in the fourth quarter and scored nine of his 14 points then, as he and other reserves were on the floor against Raptors reserves.
“He’s just playing well,” Mitchell said. “He’s doing the tough things we need him to do. He’s giving up his body, he’s sacrificing, he’s rolling to the basket. That’s the thing we’re trying to teach our guys: Sometimes you have to do things to get your teammates open and get them shots. It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, and it’s not something that’s going to be written about in the paper, but we understand how important the things are that G is doing for us.”