New Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng first played basketball back home in Senegal just six years ago, but Flip Saunders refuses to call a 6-11 shot-blocking center who’s both raw and already 23 years old a project.

The Wolves acquired Dieng — the defensive anchor of Louisville’s NCAA championship team last April — with the second of two first-round picks received in a draft-night trade with Utah, choosing with the 21st overall pick a player they projected ahead of others on their draft board even though he was a late starter.

“I think he’s more ready to play than most of those guys because he has an NBA skill and that skill is that he can guard,” Saunders said.

Saunders also praised Dieng’s ability to pass from the high post, an attractive quality for a big man in Rick Adelman’s offensive system.

“I think I just opened another chapter in my book,” said Dieng, who used his 7-4 wingspan to average 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in his third and final season at Louisville. “I know I have a long way to go. … I just get drafted, but that’s not my goal. My goal is like playing 10 or 15 years in the NBA. That’s what I’m all about.”


• Saturday is the deadline for Wolves forward Andrei Kirilenko to exercise a $10.2 million option year for next season. If he opts out, he becomes an unrestricted free agent able to negotiate a longer contract extension with the Wolves or another team. Kirilenko’s agent said late Friday afternoon that his client hadn’t decided yet.

• The Wolves on Friday exercised the $2.1 million option on forward Dante Cunningham’s contract for next season.

• Saunders said he expects Muhammad, Dieng and second-round pick Lorenzo Brown from North Carolina State to play in the Las Vegas summer league next month. Illinois guard Brandon Paul also will play for the Wolves.