How the Thunder’s second unit can get a boost from Ousmane Dieng

How the Thunder’s second unit can get a boost from Ousmane Dieng

The French forward can play on the wing — he spent some of his summer studying Kevin Durant and Paul George — or serve as a de facto center. Every now and then he passes like a point guard.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 18, 2023, 3:51pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 18, 2023, 3:51pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — It was among the loudest plays of the Thunder’s preseason win against the Bucks on Tuesday, and during it, forward Ousmane Dieng had perhaps the quietest impact. 

It featured a lob from near midcourt, 29-year-old rookie Vasilije Micic lofting a pinpoint pass for a two-handed jam from Jalen Williams. It was hard not to notice. 

But you might have missed Bucks center Robin Lopez near the free-throw line, leaving Williams a clear runway for takeoff. 

And you might not have realized the 6-foot-10 Dieng was part of the reason. 

“We’re small on that play,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said Wednesday at practice. “And Lopez was kind of lost on the play. I think they just were mismatched because there was no traditional center on the floor.”

That positional mixup is one of the “subtle” ways that Dieng can impact a game, Daigneault said. 

The French forward can play on the wing — he spent some of his summer studying Kevin Durant and Paul George — or serve as a de facto center. Every now and then he passes like a point guard. 

He’s a piece of the Thunder’s positionless ideal, and though he’s still figuring out how best to impact games, he shows encouraging flashes of basketball acumen. 

“He’s always had feel and playmaking ability,” Daigneault said. “That he had walking in the door. He’s got great instincts of where the ball should go.”

Take the passes he made Tuesday, when he dished four assists in 16 minutes. 

One of them came on a roll to the basket, during which he spotted sharpshooter Isaiah Joe on the left wing — behind Dieng — and found him for a swish and assist. 

The court vision comes naturally. Dieng “can make some passes that other guys can’t because of his size,” said OKC two-way center and French countryman Olivier Sarr. 

“Younger, I was playing point guard a little bit,” Dieng said. “I always liked passing the ball. 

The dive to the rim is a little less comfortable. That short roll as a big man — screening, cutting to the basket, receiving a pass and making another — is something Dieng said he’s “improved on” since he arrived in OKC. 

That’s a “critical skill for everybody” in the Thunder offense, Daigneault said. 

“But it’s especially important for a guy like him because it’s a big target,” Daigneault said. “And he’s good decision maker.”

It opens up diverse looks for OKC’s second unit, where Dieng can play all over the floor in off-ball roles, sometimes catching to drive, others catching to shoot from long range (he’s 6 for 15 on 3-pointers this preseason). 

Still, his game remains raw, at both end of the floor. 

After Sunday’s loss at Charlotte, Daigneault was disappointed in the force and physicality Dieng displayed. He didn’t find it the next day in practice, either, Daigneault said. 

But against the Bucks, “he got the car back on the road competitively,” Daigneault said, impressed with Dieng’s ability to course correct from one game to the next. 

There still are strides to make. Dieng needs to learn how to “leverage his agility defensively, his length defensively, his height around the basket” to contest shots and rebound, Daigneault said. 

But at 20 years old — he won’t turn 21 until May — Dieng is showing signs, some subtle and some less so. 

“He’s got great tools, and then it’s just a matter of turning those into impact on the court,” Daigneault said. “And he’s year over year improved greatly at that. There’s gonna be ups and downs in that process, but if you look at where he was a year ago, he’s a significantly more impactful player.” 

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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