Sam Mitchell Learned Coaching, Playing Lessons From Saunders

Sam Mitchell, at right, played a big part in being a veteran leader during Kevin Garnett's early years with the Wolves. Now he's back as an assistant, and he's hoping to help Flip Saunders implement similar structure and lessons he received during his playing days in Minnesota.
Dale Tait
by Mark Remme
Web Editor

Sam Mitchell spent seven of his 13 NBA seasons under Flip Saunders, giving the former Wolves’ forward a lot of time to learn and develop his basketball identity under Minnesota’s all-time winningest coach. And now that Saunders is back—bringing Mitchell along as an assistant in his first year returning to the Wolves’ bench—he has a chance to showcase those traits he learned from his former coach all those years ago.

There’s a lot of admiration between Saunders and Mitchell. Saunders, for instance, has given Mitchell credit for being a veteran presence in the Wolves’ locker room during Kevin Garnett’s early days in the NBA. And Mitchell sees Saunders as a mentor whose philosophy really helped him develop into the player and coach he became.

Now, he’s hoping to help Saunders return Minnesota to where it was when he was a player within the organization—his last six seasons all resulted in Wolves’ playoff berths.

“Flip had a way of just getting the best out of you,” Mitchell said on Tuesday. “He never asked you to do things you weren’t comfortable doing, but he always put you in a situation where you can—you know—he’d hide your weaknesses and give you a chance to show your strengths. And that’s what you’re supposed to do as a coach until those weaknesses become strengths.”

By the time Mitchell and Saunders joined up in Minnesota in 1995-96, the six-year veteran had already developed his niche in the league. It took him until he was 26 to get his chance in the NBA, which came when Wolves coach Bill Musselman brought Mitchell and other Continental Basketball Association talents on board. He spent three years in Minnesota under Musselman and Jimmy Rodgers before spending three playoff seasons in Indiana. There, under Bob Hill and Larry Brown, he continued to accrue basketball knowledge that would help him along the way.

Then, back in Minnesota at age 32, he was able to help add leadership to a young group that was on its way toward eight consecutive playoff appearances.

That’s one thing Saunders saw in Mitchell all those years ago and something he’s counting on as an assistant this time around.

“Sam has always been one to hold players accountable,” Mitchell said. “When he was a player, he did that in the locker room. When he was a coach, he did that. I believe that’s really important within an organization, you know, from the top to the assistant coaches, as it carries down into the players—that the players know they’re not going to be enabled.”

Similar to Sidney Lowe, who was hired on previous to Mitchell, Saunders has two people on staff with whom he’s incredibly comfortable and know how he runs his system. Mitchell said that’s important, and having been a NBA Coach of the Year winner in 2006-07, he understands what it takes to run a successful coaching staff. Loyalty and familiarity are both keys to that equation.

Mitchell said he used a very similar offensive philosophy when he was head coach in Toronto. The Raptors moved the basketball, played as a team, played in space and pushed their offensive abilities. He said he’s learned a lot from Saunders, Brown, Musselman and others, but he’s ready to learn more.

“I tell Flip all the time, I know you’ve got a few more tricks up there in that back that hasn’t shown people yet, so I’m going to get into that bag and learn those, too,” Mitchell said. “But it’s just, like I said, for me, I was comfortable doing what I was doing and when the opportunity came to work with Flip, if you’re going to get back into coaching I couldn’t think of a better situation.”

Saunders said not only has Mitchell been a strong leader on his basketball teams, but he’s also been a head coach in the league. That’s going to help when it comes to communicating with and developing players.

And when you’re familiar with a team’s philosophy, it goes a long way. Mitchell knows what to expect from his head coach, and Saunders said that’s a big deal in helping find NBA success. In San Antonio, Gregg Popovich has people who are familiar with the way his team operates. At Duke, many of Mike Krzyzewski’s assistants are former players.

“Why? Because they understand the philosophy,” Saunders said. “What you want to do, and they’re all on board. They understand that and can move forward with that.”

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