Amidst one of the most disappointing rookie classes in recent memory, two bright spots have emerged from the middle of the first round - Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee. Taken with the No. 21 and No. 22 picks, where an average NBA player is all you can hope for, Dieng and Plumlee have already exceeded expectations. As rookies, they are both solid NBA centers who look headed for 10+ year careers. A lot of teams should regret passing on them.
Dieng, taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the second of their two first round picks, didn’t play much for the first four months of the season. With Minnesota making a desperate playoff push to keep Kevin Love in town, Rick Adelman stuck with his veterans, giving Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf minutes behind Nikola Pekovic at center. It wasn’t until Pekovic went down with an ankle injury in mid-March that Dieng got a chance to show what he could do.
Because he wasn’t playing much, the feeling around the league was that Dieng was a raw player, years away from being ready to be a contributor. The reality was somewhat different - just because a young player doesn’t get minutes doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t play, particularly guys who aren't drafted in the lottery. The NBA, like most workplaces, is not really a meritocracy. On many teams, years of experience and the size of your paycheck determine playing time.
Dieng, a 24-year old coming off an NCAA championship season, was one of the most NBA-ready players in this year’s draft. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he already had an NBA body, with the size to hold his own in the paint. Coming out of college, he was uncommonly skilled for a center, with the ability to hit a 20-foot jumper as well as a dissect a defense from the high post. Dieng shot 65 percent from the free-throw line and averaged two assists a game at Louisville.
Dieng started producing as soon as he got into the rotation. He averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds on 45% shooting over the last month of the season, including multiple games where he grabbed more than 15 rebounds. More importantly, from the Wolves perspective, Dieng showed the ability to protect the rim, something neither Love nor Pekovic can do. He averaged 0.8 blocks in only 13 minutes a game - he should have played more.
Plumlee, like Dieng, struggled to get minutes early in his rookie season. When the Brooklyn Nets season began, not only was he behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, he was also losing minutes to guys like Reggie Evans. Many old-school coaches won't give a rookie a chance over a veteran, but Jason Kidd eventually went with the best player. It was an easy call - Plumlee is longer, more athletic and more skilled than Evans and he does more to help his team win.
After Lopez went down for the season, Plumlee took advantage of the opportunities he was given. Like Dieng, Plumlee is an older prospect, a 24-year old center who played four seasons at Duke and left with a body ready for the rigors of the NBA paint. Per-36 minutes as a rookie, he averaged 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks a game. Not only could he protect the rim in the Nets small-ball switch-heavy scheme, he could also make plays for his teammates.
In the first two games of their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Plumlee has shown his worth to the Nets. He’s the perfect complement to the older players in front of him - a ball of energy who can finish above the rim as well as add a needed boost of speed to their line-up. In their Game 1 victory over Toronto, Brooklyn was +13 in his 12 minutes on the floor. Plumlee gives them a live body who can match-up with the size and athleticism of Jonas Valanciunas.
Plumlee is the only pick from the back half of the first round with a big role on a playoff team. The Atlanta Hawks took Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira, two European teenagers at No. 16 and No. 17. Schroeder is good, but Nogueira is a project whose best-case scenario is Plumlee. The Dallas Mavericks took Shane Larkin at No. 18, a smaller PG who hasn’t cracked their rotation. The Chicago Bulls took Tony Snell at No. 20, who has a PER of 8.0 this season.
All three of those teams desperately need help in the middle. Atlanta is using Elton Brand, an undersized 35-year old PF, as their backup C. Dallas has been making do with a platoon of Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright and Dejuan Blair at the position all season. Tom Thibodeau is having to roll out 36-year old Nazr Mohammed to backup Joakim Noah in the playoffs. Most of those guys are barely NBA-caliber players at this point in their careers.
You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6’10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Larkin’s predicament in Dallas is the perfect example of the fungibility of PG’s - the Mavs picked up Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Monta Ellis in free agency and don’t need another small guard. Snell could stick in the NBA, but will he be better than Xavier Henry or Wesley Johnson, two players the Bulls could have had for nothing in the off-season?
Nogueira went higher than Dieng and Plumlee because he was perceived to have a higher ceiling, but that had more to do with his age than anything he showed on the floor. At 7’0 220, Nogueira is a painfully skinny 21-year-old who is averaging six points and four rebounds a game in Europe this season. In many ways, he was where Dieng and Plumlee were as college underclassmen. The problem is most raw young big men never improve as much as those two did.
Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling. Instead of focusing on what they could do, NBA teams worried too much about what they couldn’t. When picking in the latter half of the first round, you should think hard about passing on an NBA-caliber big man, no matter what his upside. Ask the Mavericks, Hawks and Bulls, who will once again be looking for big men this offseason.