MINNEAPOLIS — Leading up to the 2013 NBA Draft, Louisville center Gorgui Dieng wasn’t a name associated with either of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ two first-round draft picks.
But with as zany as Thursday’s first round turned out to be, a surprise pick that checks one offseason need off president of basketball operations Flip Saunders’ checklist fit right in.
“Strange things happen; you’re never surprised,” Saunders said. “With our second pick, we wanted to pick up a big guy that could be a presence at the rim, block shots and be more of a defensive role-type player.”
Even if it wasn’t one he’d had a whole lot of contact with.
In a late, scrambling deal that sent No. 9 overall pick Trey Burke to Utah in exchange for a pair of agreed-upon first-round selections, the Timberwolves got all 6 feet, 11 inches and 245 pounds of Dieng with the 21st pick.
He never worked out in Minnesota before the draft. Nor did he show up as a Timberwolves’ prospect on any mock boards. Saunders never mentioned him during pre-draft media sessions.
But then again, no one ever asked.
“We talked to him at the combine,” Saunders said. “I saw him when I went to the NCAA tournament. … I’ve had extensive conversations with (Louisville) Coach (Rick) Pitino.
“He has an NBA skill, and that NBA skill is that he can guard.”
Dieng brings instant interior defense to a team that’s struggled in that category the past few seasons. The 2013 Big East defensive player of the year swatted 2.6 shots per game in his three seasons under coach Rick Pitino, thanks to his impressive agility for so large a frame.
Above-average ballhandling and passing skills push him over the top as an NBA-ready get, Saunders said.
Assuming the Timberwolves are able to re-sign Nikola Pekovic, Dieng appears poised to learn and develop under the restricted free agent’s tutelage.
Malcolm in the middle: With Minnesota wheeling and dealing in the wake of a first round gone sideways, reserve guard Malcolm Lee finds himself on the way to Oakland, Calif., along with the 26th overall pick in exchange for cash and the Warriors’ 2014 second-round selection.
The Timberwolves had been hoping to draft Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the ninth pick and take a big man at No. 26, but Detroit snatched up the Georgia shooting guard and left the top portion of Minnesota’s draft board bone-dry.
Hence the trade down for two of the Utah Jazz’s picks — and no need for a third in the first round, the Timberwolves decided.
“That gives us some freedom to have a little bit more money in free agency,” Saunders said of the trade. “We felt comfortable where we were at at our first two (picks). … We just didn’t feel to have three first-round picks was going to be beneficial to fill our roster right now.”
In order to match Golden State’s contributions, Minnesota also threw in Lee, who has two years left on his current contract worth about $2 million altogether. In 35 games the past two seasons, Lee averaged 15.2 minutes and four points.
Case in point: Saunders said earlier in the week Minnesota would avoid drafting a point guard in the first round, given it entered the offseason with five on its roster. The Timberwolves only did so in order to acquire Muhammad and Dieng.
But the second round’s a whole different animal, and Minnesota was pleased to land a point guard in Lorenzo Brown that Saunders feels could’ve been drafted much higher.
“He’s a first-round talent,” Saunders said of the NC State product, whom the Timberwolves selected 52nd overall with the first of two second-round picks. “He was by far a very value pick there.”
In three seasons with the Wolfpack, Brown tallied 11.6 points and 5.8 assists per outing. He also ranked second in the ACC in steals this past season with two a contest.
The 6-foot-5, 186-pounder appeared in line for a possible first-round selection after his sophomore season but stayed in college for a year and saw his stock drop a bit. But not enough that Minnesota won’t give him a chance to crack its roster this summer, Saunders said.
“Guys like that, I think one he comes in, we work him out, we see what happens in summer league, and then we see where he’s at,” Saunders said. “Maybe he decides to give it a go with the team and see if he can make the team.”
If that’s the case, keep an eye out for one or more of the Timberwolves’ current point guards to be on the move this offseason.
How do you say that?: Timberwolves television and radio personalities won’t have to learn how to pronounce No. 58 draft pick Bojan Dubljevic’s name, at least not within the next year.
Minnesota plans to let the Montenegrin stretch four remain with Spanish organization Valencia Basket to continue growing his game before transitioning to the NBA.
“We’ve had our eye on him, watching him for a while,” Saunders said. “We plan on him staying over there.”
Dubljevic’s most impressive numbers came in the 2011 U-20 European Championship, where he ranked second in scoring with 22.4 points per game and showed off a smooth shooting touch for a 6-foot-9, 235-pound youngster.