Saunders' Advice Stuck With Mitchell Throughout Career

Sam Mitchell, who spent two stints with the Wolves during his playing career, got advice from Flip Saunders at one point that stuck with him after his playing days were over.
Ken Levine/NBAE/Getty Images
by Mark Remme
Web Editor

 Sam Mitchell didn’t always see himself being a coach after his playing days were over. He admitted last season during an interview for that he always saw himself being more of a front office type when he found his next career.

But at some point along the road, way back, he heard a saying that ended up holding true.

“I didn’t want to coach,” Mitchell said last season. “But Flip Saunders told me sometimes your profession chooses you, you don’t choose it. And I’ve enjoyed coaching as much as I’ve enjoyed playing.”

Now, that entire conversation is holding true more than ever.

Mitchell was named a Timberwolves assistant coach on Tuesday, making him the second new member of Flip Saunders’ crew after Sidney Lowe accepted last week. Mitchell, like Lowe, has a long history here in Minnesota. He spent two stints here, including the franchise’s first three seasons and a seven-year stint from 1995-2002—during which the Wolves, under Saunders, went to the playoffs six times.

He spent those last seven seasons in Minnesota under Saunders, and now he’ll be able to work alongside him on his coaching staff. Saunders clearly saw something in Mitchell as a player considering that advice he gave him all those years ago, and he still sees that potential in him now that he’s bringing him on board as an assistant.

After 13 years in the league, Mitchell got his shot at coaching in immediately after retirement. He spent two years as a Milwaukee Bucks assistant, and he followed it up with five years as the Toronto Raptors head coach. During his stint in Toronto, he led the Raptors to two playoff appearances and won the 2006-07 NBA Coach of the Year Award.

 He spent 2010-11 as a Nets assistant before taking the past few seasons off away from the bench. He’s been on NBATV during that time away, and now he’s getting another chance to get back on the bench and join a long-time friend and mentor.

But even though Mitchell didn’t necessarily plan on coaching when his career was over, he certainly got a tutorial in how to bridge that transition during his first two seasons in Minnesota. In those two seasons under Bill Musselman, he and five other players and assistants eventually became head coaches in the league. Lowe, Scott Brooks, Tyrone Corbin, Tom Thibodeau and Eric Musselman are all on the list.

Others from those first two seasons became assistants as well.

Mitchell said learning how to judge the flow and tempo of the game was a big part of what he learned from Musselman during those early years, and that helped him make the transition to coaching.

That, and the ability to motivate players and maximize potential.

“If you look at those teams—myself, Ty Corbin, Scott Brooks, Tom Thibodeau as an assistant on that staff, Sidney Lowe—we were all overachievers,” Mitchell said. “But we had basketball minds, and we all probably played better because our minds than because of our talent.”

He said Musselman’s attention to detail was another reason for that group’s later success as coaches.

“Bill had 82 plays, he had 82 sets,” Mitchell said. “So I played 2-3 positions. You had to know 82x2, 82x3, and he expected that from everyone. Everyone was supposed to know what everyone was doing. He instilled all those things in you, but he made it simple. It was complicated, but he did it in a way that he could get it. He just had a passion for coaching, and that rubbed off on us.”

Now, he’s got another opportunity in Minnesota to try and pass that knowledge on to this group of players. In the process, he’s hopeful he can help the Wolves return to those perennial postseasons like they did during his second stint with the team.

He said the fans deserve it.

“It’s a great place to live,” Mitchell said. “And a great place to play.”

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