Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 | 2 a.m.
With T.J. Otzelberger bringing his high-powered offensive system to UNLV, much of the offseason focus has been on the Rebels’ outside-shooting prowess and the idea of spacing the court with small-ball lineups.
Lost in that talk is the fact that one of UNLV’s most essential players figures be someone who didn’t make a single 3-pointer last season. Mbacke Diong will likely start at center despite his modest 0-of-2 shooting performance from long distance in 2018-19, because even someone as offensive-minded as Otzelberger understands the importance of defense.
Heading into his junior season, Diong appears to be on the verge of fulfilling his potential as a game-changing defender in the middle. At 6-foot-11, he blocked 1.5 shots per game in just 24.2 minutes last year, and he has an impressive block rate of 6.6 percent for his career.
After working with Diong through the summer and a couple weeks of preseason practice, Otzelberger sees him as a building block on the defensive end of the court.
“The reason he’s on the floor is his elite ability defensively,” Otzelberger said. “It’s rim protection, it’s length, it’s communication, it’s the ability to guard the dribble. He’s really elite in that area.
“I’ve never had the pleasure of coaching a guy with his elite defensive prowess,” Otzelberger continued. “He’s pretty unique in his ability to do all of it. There’s a spot for him.”
Defense is Diong’s calling card, but can he factor into Otzelberger’s offense? Contrary to popular belief, Otzelberger has given minutes to non-shooting big men in the past, and while Diong may not be able to stretch the floor like a Mike Daum, he is capable of impacting the Rebels’ offensive sets with his quickness and motor.
Otzelberger sees Diong as a big who can initiate the offense at the top of the key, set screens and roll to the basket as a finisher.
The key, Otzelberger said, is to make Diong a moving target.
“It really comes down to him having that motor where he stays on the move,” Otzelberger said. “I think it’s really tough to defend him — he’s not a guy that sits in the post area and clogs up the lane, he’s a guy that gets out and stays sprinting around, screening and diving to the rim.”
That means Diong isn’t likely to score a ton of points this season. His main job will be to set good screens that create open looks for his sharpshooting teammates,
It’s not as simple as it sounds. In order to execute his job, Diong has to understand the defensive concepts of UNLV’s opponents and call out cuts and passes for his teammates.
The days of standing in the post and waiting for an entry pass are over, and Diong is embracing his new responsibilities.
“We’ve got guys that can shoot 3’s and all that, so I’m just going to get them open,” Diong said. “I get them open by screening. Talk to them; flare, ball screen, pin down, anything that can get them open.
“Every time in practice [Otzelberger] emphasizes spacing,” he continued. “You can’t do what he needs the team to be doing if there’s crowded defense, or if the offense is not spaced…It’s not just about scoring, it’s about getting your teammates open.”
Diong’s main scoring contributions will probably come as a finisher in the paint. He is quick enough to set screens on the perimeter, then beat his man with a cut to the basket. If the defense is spread out to cover the Rebels’ shooters, Diong should have open lanes to roll to the rim for alley-oops.
Otzelberger expects the lob pass to Diong to be a feature of the offense.
“Absolutely,” the coach said. “I think with him, we can get him over the top all day long and utilize his speed and athleticism. He has great hands when it’s above his shoulders and he can go up and get it, so we need to give him the ball up there and let him go finish those plays, especially some dunks and lobs.”
The idea of going up over the top for big dunks is obviously something that appeals to Diong.
“That’s a big part [of the offense],” Diong said. “We’ve got a lot of shooters: Jonah [Antonio], Eli [Mitrou-Long], Amauri [Hardy]. When they’re in the corner, Eli and Amauri are great on the spacing, so when I go set a screen and I just roll it’s going to be a big gap over there, so I’ve just got to finish.”
It’s a new role, but one Diong is perfectly suited to play. If he does it well, he’ll show that not everyone needs to launch from beyond the arc in order to play — and win — for Otzelberger.
“I get the guys open,” Diong said. “I finish around the basket, I offensive rebound. Everything that I need to help my team win.”