Executive has chance to carry Saunders' vision, groom young team
POSTED: Dec 30, 2015 12:20 PM ET
Milt Newton, hired by Flip Saunders in 2013, is looking to balance Saunders' vision and carving his own niche.
MINNEAPOLIS — As solid as Milt Newton's basketball resume is, his personal story is even more impressive.
Born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, before Tim Duncan made it NBA-fashionable, Newton grew up poor, fatherless and undisciplined, blowing off enough school and homework to be put through seventh grade twice. When he was 14, his mother and uncle shuttled him to a cousin's home in New Jersey. After things soured there, it was on to his aunt's home in Washington, D.C.
During his time there, benefiting from the stability of Sheila Benjamin's home and the strength of a high school friend's father, Kent Amos, Newton began to get traction in life and in basketball.
"You've got a 6-5, very strong young man standing in front of you," Amos told the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently. "I'm certainly not going to take him on mano-a-mano. But that's not what we do. What we do is demonstrate a lifestyle and they have to choose it if that's what they want."
Milt is more than competent to do the job.
– Wolves coach Sam Mitchell on Milt Newton
Newton played well enough at Washington's Coolidge High to generate interest from NCAA schools, and he chose Kansas. In his junior year, with coach Larry Brown and Danny Manning, the school won the national championship, with Newton joining his bigger-name teammate on the Final Four's all-tournament squad.
He earned two college degrees that furthered his early goal of becoming an NBA general manager, but first continued to play, spending time in the CBA and in Europe. Through Brown, he got hooked up with the Denver Nuggets and later the Philadelphia 76ers as a scout. From there, Newton moved to USA Basketball, the NBA Developmental League and the Washington Wizards' front office. It was during his 10 years there that he and Flip Saunders, the Wizards coach from 2009-20011, became friends.
Newton was brought to Minnesota as Saunders' lieutenant and details guy when the longtime coach was re-hired by the Timberwolves as president of basketball operations in May 2013. Now Newton has inherited, at least for this season, Saunders' executive duties while assistant coach Sam Mitchell slides into their departed boss' bench role.
"Milt is more than competent to do the job," Mitchell said. "He's been in the league for 20 years. He knows talent, he knows drafting. I've been a head coach before and had some success at it. I know the development part of it, as far as getting young guys where they want to be. I just think the thing that's left is to make it permanent."
Mitchell and Newton have mutual interests in supporting and lobbying for each other. Any changes up top -- before or after owner Glen Taylor resumes his phase-out -- probably would have repercussions for them. Both have chances to earn positions for which they likely wouldn't have been hired outright.
"If you know me, I'm very secure in what I do" Newton said before a game at Target Center earlier this month. "Years ago I heard a friend of mine say, 'Don't try to keep your job. Do your job.' That's the approach that I take. My relationship is getting stronger with Glen. We're constantly in communication. I think I am proving to him that I am capable of continuing to lead this team."
Part of Taylor's style in running the Wolves and his other businesses -- he's a Forbes 400 mainstay, all spun from a stationery printing operation in Manakto, Minn. -- is to promote from within and trust those with whom he's familiar. It doesn't hurt Newton's case that, when the Wolves reached outside in 2009, they hired David Kahn and wound up with four largely forgettable seasons.
Newton, who expressed his love for Saunders in the touching tribute video shown before tipoff of the Wolves' season opener, feels he can walk that line between honoring the plan Saunders put in place and correcting its course as needed. In doing so, he feels he can please Taylor, too.
"The one thing he's allowed me to do, he says, 'Milt, if you see something that makes our team better, you have permission to do that,' " Newton said of Taylor. "But I want to make sure I keep him involved -- I don't ever want to spring a situation on him. So whatever we do in the future, he would have known weeks in advance, maybe months in advance, this is the direction we're heading in."
Knowing all the while that plans and fortunes can turn in days or even hours, something which the Wolves became too familiar this year.
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