Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 | 2 a.m.
As recently as three weeks ago, Diong was a hypothetical. The 6-foot-11 forward possessed obvious talent, but opportunities to show it were few and far between in the first half of the season. The freshman saw extremely limited playing time during the nonconference schedule, including a couple of DNPs, and it wasn't until backup center Cheickna Dembele suffered a concussion before the Mountain West opener that a path was cleared for Diong to receive a spot in the Rebels' rotation.
Since getting bumped up to No. 2 on the depth chart, Diong has looked very much like the real deal. Despite just turning 18 years old in December, he has quickly established himself as a skilled rim protector, and he's been providing exactly what the defensively challenged Rebels need at that end of the court.
Diong's latest feat of strength came in Saturday's comeback win at Colorado State. Diong entered the game with 3:08 remaining, and CSU did not score the rest of the way as UNLV stormed back for a 79-74 victory.
Diong's defense in the middle helped UNLV hold the Rams to 0-of-4 shooting during that stretch, and he came up with a key steal that led directly to a pair of free throws for Jovan Mooring.
It was the second conference game that Diong has helped the Rebels pull out so far this season. At San Jose State on Jan. 3, he blocked two shots in 15 minutes and hit a game-tying free throw in the final seconds to send the contest to overtime, where UNLV eventually prevailed.
After the win at Colorado State, Diong said he is feeling more comfortable on the court now, and that he has come a long way since sinking that nerve-wracking free throw at San Jose State.
"I've learned a lot," Diong said. "I was pretty nervous at that time, but I'm not nervous like that anymore ... We've been playing defense every time we practice. We've been practicing defense a lot, so we've just got to keep doing what we do in practice, and that will pay off in the games."
While he averages just 2.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, the advanced stats reveal his true impact. His block rate of 9.1 percent is highest on the team, and he has increased it to 11.6 percent in conference play. He's also sporting the best defensive-rebounding rate on the team in MWC play, as he's pulled down 25.3 percent of available boards.
But perhaps the most eye-opening stat is one that reveals the effect he is having on UNLV's team defense: With Diong on the floor, Rebels' opponents are shooting just 36.3 percent in conference play. When Diong is not in the game, opponents' shooting improves to 50.3 percent.
By anchoring the UNLV defense, Diong has also impacted the scoreboard. Through six conference games, he leads UNLV in individual plus/minus with a rating of +16.8 per 40 minutes. For context, the Rebels' next-closest players are Tervell Beck (+8.8) and Jovan Mooring (+2.2).
Diong is not a finished product yet — not even close. He fouls at a high rate (7.9 personals per 40 minutes), and that will keep him from playing extended minutes for the time being. But Menzies has seen Diong's progression throughout the year, and that's why the coach has been showing an increasing amount of trust in his young big man.
Even after Diong struggled through the first half at Colorado State, Menzies wasn't afraid to put him back on the court with the game on the line.
"He had a bad first half," Menzies said. "But people always remember what have you done for me lately, and that's great. I'm glad he was so good for us down the stretch."
Playing time at center is quickly becoming a delicate balancing act for Menzies. Freshman star Brandon McCoy brings elite scoring touch and good offensive rebounding to the position, but through six conference games, the Rebels have clearly been a more effective team with Diong providing elite defense in the middle (McCoy has a plus/minus of -7.6 in MWC).
McCoy has started every game for UNLV this season and will undoubtedly continue to do so, but Menzies will have to figure out a way to keep his five-star freshman happy and productive while also leaning on Diong to help the team win games on the defensive end.
The fact that Diong's play has forced that conversation is a good sign for the Rebels, now and for the future.