Friday, Nov. 9, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Sophomore Mbacke Diong turned in a standout performance in UNLV’s exhibition win over Montana State-Billings last week, posting a career-high in points (15) and rebounds (17). Coming off a freshman campaign in which he averaged just 2.1 points and 2.6 rebounds, Diong’s breakout game was a surprise to everyone — except his teammates.
Senior power forward Shakur Juiston plays next to Diong in the frontcourt, and he has witnessed Diong’s progression since the start of last year. According to Juiston, Diong’s loud double-double was nothing to get too excited about.
Juiston said it was just another day at the office for Diong.
“The coaches wouldn’t put him out there if they didn’t think he could do that,” Juiston said. “We wouldn’t pass him the ball if we didn’t think he could do that. All the things that he did Friday night was just a glimpse of what we’ve been seeing since he got here.”
Diong was used mostly as a defensive specialist last season. The 6-foot-11 center played when UNLV coaches wanted more rim protection on the floor, and his job was to block or contest shots around the basket. On offense, he showed an ability to catch the ball and finish above the rim with athletic dunks, but there wasn’t much else in the repertoire.
It appears his role has expanded thanks to an offseason spent improving his game. Against Montana State, Diong scored in a variety of ways — putbacks, post moves, jump hooks, etc. — while making an efficient 7-of-13 shots from the field. He also protected the ball well against the undersized Montana State team, committing just one turnover.
Diong said the most important part of his job is still defense and blocking shots, but he has developed confidence in his ability to score the ball. And he takes pride in knowing his teammates believe in him as an offensive threat.
“Trust is one of our core values,” Diong said. “I trust [my teammates] and they trust me. So when I get the ball, they know I can score. Every time I catch the ball and I can’t score, they know I’ll pass it.”
Diong got the start against Montana State and played 25 minutes, and he figures to start again in Saturday’s regular-season opener against Loyola Marymount, assuming good health. Diong was a partial participant in Thursday’s practice after taking a blow to the head, and while head coach Marvin Menzies said he’s not technically in concussion protocol, they want to play it safe with Diong so early in the season.
Aside from injuries, the other obstacle to big minutes will be foul trouble. Diong led UNLV in personal fouls last season (8.6 per 40 minutes), and unless he cuts down on the whistles, it will be hard for Menzies to play him for extended minutes. Diong was called for four fouls against Montana State.
Diong knows that fouls are a serious issue and he’s trying to stay on his feet more in an effort to cut down on personals.
“I have to defend without fouling,” he said. “That’s a big thing for me. That’s the goal for me, to have the least fouls that I can…The [coaches] talk to me about that, and I worked on that in the summer. I think I’m getting better at it. It didn’t show in the last game, but I’m really working on it.”
The difficult balance, Diong said, will be maintaining his intimidating presence around the rim without making excessive contact.
“No foul is good, but I would say I will challenge every shot. Sometimes I swipe down my hand and the refs see that. But I will challenge the shot.”
Diong recorded two blocks against Montana State, but Juiston said his impact goes even beyond the shots he blocks.
“Defensively, I know he’s a great shot blocker,” Juiston said, “but he alters the opponent’s shot, whether it’s a 3 or a layup. You see how long his arms are and how high he jumps. It’s going to make you second-guess your shot.”
If Diong's offensive improvement is real and he can manage to cut down on his foul rate, UNLV won't just have a defensive specialist at center — the Rebels will have one of the best big men in the conference.