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Mitchell looks to carry on Flip's legacy, carve own path

Wolves interim coach aware of hurdles that come with young talent

POSTED: Dec 30, 2015 12:21 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Sam Mitchell, who was Coach of the Year in 2007, is hoping to have the 'interim' tag removed next summer.

— Fifty-two might not feel so old to Sam Mitchell but for the youngsters who surround him.

Mitchell, Minnesota's interim coach, never passes up a chance to remind people how young the Timberwolves are. It's a fairly harmless way to vent over lessons unlearned and mistakes repeated, things that can bedevil a coach. Especially one who stayed all four years at Mercer and didn't play his first NBA game until he was 26.

Don't judge Mitchell's roster by those handy measures of "average age" and "average years of experience," though. When a team has Kevin Garnett (39), Andre Miller (39) and Tayshaun Prince (35) aboard, it's misleading to report that it ranks ninth in the NBA in the former (27.6) and 13th in the latter (5.1).

Minnesota's key contributors are much more a kiddie corps.

"Do we have talent? Yes, we do," Mitchell said, revving into a point he never tires of making. "Andrew Wiggins is talented. Zach LaVine is talented. Karl-Anthony Towns is talented. Gorgui Dieng is talented. Shabazz Muhammad is talented. Tyus Jones is talented. But they're 20. They should be sophomores in college. They can't go into a club. They can't order a beer.

"And yet we stick 'em out there in front of 20,000 people and say, 'Go be adults. And by the way, you're playing against grown men.' Look at Zach -- he looks like a little kid. Look at his body. Two years from now he'll have his 'man body.' "

`To ask you to be Flip, we would not get the best of you. You're your own coach.'

– Wolves GM Milt Newton on Sam Mitchell taking over for Saunders on the bench

Mitchell, who very much wants the "interim" tag removed from his title when Wolves owner Glen Taylor evaluates him next summer, understates some of his guys' ages. But this much is true: In NBA history, 31 players have averaged at least 15.0 points at age 19 or 20 while qualifying for the league's leader boards. Only Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2008-09, ever had two of them in the same year.

Well, Minnesota has Wiggins (20.9) and Towns (15.9) -- with LaVine (14.8) knocking on the door. So cut Mitchell a little slack if he feels the clock on his career ambitions is dependent on kids whose clocks barely have started ticking.

"We're asking these guys to go do all this stuff," he said, "and mentally and physically, they're not there yet."

The good news for Mitchell is that he probably won't be judged on games won, though if he is, the Wolves (11-19) are in better shape than they were last season (16-66). What he will be judged on is the young guys' development, on his coaching style and tactics, and on his demeanor and consistency in the job.

"He was Coach of the Year [in 2007], so obviously he knows how to coach," said Milt Newton, the general manager who has stepped into Flip Saunders' decision-making role in Minnesota, with Mitchell handling the coaching role. "I've known Sam since 2003. I know he has a different approach [than Saunders] with the players. But we told him from the very first day 'To ask you to be Flip, we would not get the best of you. You're your own coach.' So coach this team the way you see best."

Said Towns: "He's been awesome. To play for him has been an honor. If he's more demanding of you than others, that's a great thing. That means he expects more out of you."

Twenty years ago, Mitchell was the salty vet who broke in Garnett, a 19-year-old who dusted off the daring leap from high school to the NBA. Now Garnett is playing for him while providing the same salty service as a resident old head. The Mitchell he sees now is the one he saw then.

"Same guy," Garnett said. "Fiery. Competitive. Wants to win. Hates to lose. He coaches very hard and he wants for everybody. He roots for guys. At the same time, he wishes he could put a jersey on and show how to do it. His spirit's there. You want a coach you feel has your back, and everybody feels like that."

Questions remain, to be answered over the remaining 50 or so games. Can Mitchell avoid the meltdowns that cost him his head coaching job in Toronto in 2008 and his assistant's gig on Avery Johnson's Nets' staff in 2012? Can he set aside his almost recreational rancor with the media, an odd choice that does him no favors with critics? More important, can the defensive-minded Mitchell fashion an offense -- the Wolves rank 30th in 3-point field goal attempts, fourth in field-goal attempts and 23rd in eFG% -- suitable for his talent and the 21st century NBA?

"Being 'interim' doesn't bother Sam as much as making sure these guys are ready to play," said Sidney Lowe, Minnesota assistant and former NBA head coach who teamed with Mitchell on the inaugural Wolves team in 1989-90. "The reality is that he has an opportunity, we have an opportunity, and right now he's showing that he can get the job done."

As cantankerous as Mitchell can be, though, and as determined as he is to honor both Saunders work and the young players' potential, he sometimes sounds resigned to not getting his due. That's more likely to happen if change comes higher up in the Wolves' flow chart, in the front office (Newton) or at the ownership level (Taylor).

"The second coach sometimes, for some of these very young players, gets the credit but the first coach who coached 'em is the one who laid the ground work," Mitchell said. "That did the discipline. That made sure you did A, B and C every day. That made sure you understand why you have to do this or that. The second coach always benefits and gets all the credit, but it's that first coach who went through all the pain."

The key is to keep the growing in synch with the pain.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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