Ahead of the 2021-22 season, Peachtree Hoops will preview each player on the Atlanta Hawks’ roster with a look at what they might bring to the table for the team this season. Today, we examine newly acquired backup center Gorgui Dieng.
Coming off of an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Atlanta Hawks didn’t have an obvious path to getting better heading toward the 2021-2022 NBA season. Despite a heavy share of injuries that impacted them last year, they were able to deploy credible rotations because of their roster depth.
The one position where they needed a more experienced player to be able to come off of the bench was center. Bruno Fernando, who very well may still have a future in the league, wasn’t able to give them much as a third string five man last year. He entered the league as a project big man and the developmental gap is still sizable enough that he isn’t the solution for Atlanta at this juncture. This is especially true considering that Onyeka Okongwu will miss some significant time at the start of the upcoming season.
The solution that Travis Schlenk turned to is Gorgui Dieng, a 31-year-old veteran of eight seasons in the league who signed on to a one-year deal with Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent.
Despite his tenure in the league it’s quite possible that Dieng has yet to find the optimal situation for himself after his coaching staff in Minnesota tried to play him with Karl-Anthony Towns, a tough fit on both ends of the court. It’s still hard to believe Dieng and Towns both started all 82 games during the 2016-2017 season. This followed an offseason in which the Timberwolves handed him a $62 million extension as to avoid sending him into restricted free agency.
The result for Dieng was that he ended up on a contract that was hard to move as teams increasingly spent less money at the center position. He was finally dealt to Memphis at the 2020 trade deadline before moving on to San Antonio after a buy out last year.
The situation in Atlanta could be ideal for both Dieng and his new team. The versatility he offers defensively will allow him to step into a scheme built around the prowess of Clint Capela. As a second unit defensive anchor, Dieng can competently replicate a decent amount of what Capela does in his minutes minus the most dynamic parts of Capela’s game.
He’s not the shot blocker Capela is, but he organizes the defense well, is an outstanding communicator and plays with uncommon discipline for a reserve big man. For example, he could get more shot blocks but he just doesn’t get himself out of position as to stat chase.
Dieng can function solidly on the interior and has enough mobility to execute more aggressive coverage helping, for example, at or near the point of a ball screen. It can be a luxury for NBA teams to have three centers who can be managed within the same scheme in any given game - something Atlanta will have when Okongwu returns from injury.
He has the reputation of being a professional and a good teammate, which will be important when he could presumably get bumped from the rotation by Okongwu. There is no reason to think there will be any drama around that.
Offensively, Dieng gives the Hawks something they didn’t have last year, a bonafide center that can shoot the basketball a bit. He’s made himself into a competent three-point shooter (37.8% in his last two seasons on decent volume). If an opposing team is going to completely abandon him when he spots up he is a willing shooter that can punish the tactic.
And it’s not just coming from shots in the short corner. Last season Dieng was 23-for-58 (39.6%) on shots above the break. It’s important to note, however, than he’s never functioned as a pick-and-pop big. He’s basically a center that can solidly function as a spot up shooter.
He also works well in the pick and roll, a Hawks offensive staple. Last season he produced a robust 1.34 points per possession as the roll man when the ball found it’s way to him. That puts him in the 87th percentile among centers.
Dieng will, however, need to adjust to the meteoric pace at which Trae Young pushes the envelope as a pick and roll creator. The star point guard need to be deployed with decisive partners that operate with a certain sense of urgency as he attacks the heart of the opposing defense.
A more than solid ability to finish at the rim (70.4% across his last two seasons) despite not being blessed with a ton of verticality will work as he dives through the paint after setting a ball screen in the way Capela and Okongwu do. He’s not the lob threat those two are, but he has enough skill to make it work.
He’s also a willing rim runner, an important trait for an Atlanta center as to take advantage of Young’s uncanny ability to see and execute hit-ahead passes.
Maybe the most important characteristic of Dieng’s game is in that there is nothing an NBA team often asks their centers to do that he’s bad at doing. He’s not flashy and definitely not dynamic - he’s just competent across the board, on both ends of the court.
Through hard work and a commitment to the craft and nuance required of players at his position, Dieng has made himself into a valuable rotation big that doesn’t bring limitations common among reserve centers.
If Capela has to miss time at some point in the season, a risk for any big man, the defense won’t cease to function should Dieng have to pick up a heavier workload for a stretch of games. He’s started before and knows how to get the defense organized at the beginning of a game.
His experience and the stability he offers at the position means there should be absolutely no reason the team should feel the need to rush Okongwu back into the rotation. Fernando and Okongwu combined to play 827 minutes last season, Dieng has logged more than 2000 minutes three times in his career. He should be able to give them all of the minutes they need from him depending upon how the season shakes out.
Dieng may function as the starting center now and then if Capela needs an occasional opportunity to rest (hopefully nothing more serious than that). And that will be fine.
He will back up Capela to start the season and likely slide to the third spot on the depth chart when Okongwu returns. It’s a luxury to have a third center than can competently handle any spot in the rotation. That’s exactly what the Hawks found in Dieng.