LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino said the best thing for Gorgui Dieng would be to go to the NBA after this season. He didn't say that because he wants the junior for Senegal out the door. He likes Dieng so much he named a horse after him. But Pitino is looking at the realities. Dieng turned 23 in January, and professionally speaking, if he could get into the first round of the NBA Draft, now is the time for Dieng to try to strike.

Dieng, of course, has his own way of looking at things. I asked him what he thought when Pitino made those comments. (And Pitino, for the record, noted that if Dieng isn't a sure first-round pick, he definitely should return). Dieng's response, as always, was thoughtful.

"I'm not worried about the NBA right now," Dieng said. ". . . I'm worried about the next game. When the season is over I'll sit down with coach and talk. But I consider myself that I still have a four-year scholarship, and I feel I am a student-athlete, so I'm not just trying to jump ahead of anything."

But Dieng is taking steps forward. He began the season with a mid-range jumper that was much-improved. And though his shooting percentage has dipped since suffering a broken wrist early in the season, his value as an offensive and defensive facilitator, and as a rebounder, has never been higher.

Dieng is averaging 11.5 rebounds per game. Think about this -- that's on a pace to be the highest rebound average for a U of L player in 41 years (Ron Thomas averaged 13.5 in 1971-72). He's third on the team in steals and assists per game.

Pitino is looking to him more and more like a David Padgett-type of facilitator on offense. He even has made the direct comparison. On defense, Dieng not only is a eraser as a shot blocker on the back end, but is a quarterback, calling out shifts and switches to wings in the Cards' 2-3 zone.

"He's our coach on the floor," Pitino said. "The only problem is that I'm playing him too many minutes. I've got to get him rest before TV timeouts. . . . But he's so valuable for us on the court, I haven't given him enough rest."

When asked about those comments, Dieng might've tipped his hand a bit as to how he's looking at this season. You won't catch him looking ahead at the NBA, but he also at times speaks as if he knows he might not be back.

"The minutes don't matter to me," Dieng said. "I will do whatever to help this team. I'm not worried if I play a lot of minutes or less minutes. I don't know if I'm going to have this chance again, ever, so I just go with the flow and whenever I get on the floor I try to do my best."

Dieng's understanding of the game now is uncanny. Consider this: When he first started playing at U of L, he didn't understand that an offensive foul counted against your foul total. True story.

Now, he understands U of L's offense so well that he's one of the team's better passers.

He also understands this -- there's one area of the game he yet needs to develop to give U of L its best chance down the stretch of this season: his offense.

"I'm not worried about it if I can't, but I need to score more when we need it," Dieng said. "If Russ is scoring 25 points, I'm not worried about it. I'm going to go rebound the ball. But if we are having trouble scoring and we need it, I need to make sure I can score at that time.

"It's not priority. Just to give you an example, a lot of big men don't score big points. . . . We just make sure we get on the offensive glass and kick the ball out and do the dirty work. Everybody has a role. But right now, we cannot lose anymore. That's enough. Everybody has a role and if everybody understands that we'll be fine. And sometimes if the team needs it, my role might be to score."

If you look at Dieng's history, it's a good bet his offense will improve. Pitino said he wanted Dieng to work on his passing and mid-range shooting, and he came back from the offseason with 15-footer and the ability to make plays out of the high post. Pitino told Dieng he needed to study Kenneth Faried and rebound better. Dieng is the first Cardinal to average in double digits in rebounds this late in the season since Clifford Rozier. Pitino told him a few weeks ago he needed more blocked shots. Dieng has blocked 22 shots over the past six games (a 3.7 average). He blocked five shots last Sunday at South Florida. Pitino said he should've blocked 10.

Dieng is already getting good looks around the basket, he just needs to work on catching the ball cleanly and finishing the close ones. Given that Dieng has shown good hands on the defensive end, it's likely just a matter of mind -- and those are areas in which Dieng seems to excel.

"Gorgui is a very smart guy," senior Peyton Siva said. "He's going to do whatever we need him to do. We have a lot of trust in him. He's in the gym working extra and being a leader. I think he's going to have a big finish to this season."

And that would be big for the Cardinals.

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