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Timberwolves Basketball Means Everything To Ryan Saunders, Just Watch Him Prove It
On Tuesday morning, the Timberwolves introduced Ryan Saunders as their new head coach.
This comes after Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas led a full coaching search last week. The right choice was right in front of Rosas and it became obvious pretty fast.
Saunders is absolutely loved by his players, and that has everything to do with his communication and appreciation for them. Need proof? Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop, Tyus Jones, Jared Terrell, and Mitch Creek were all in attendance at Saunders’ introductory press conference.
Relationships with players matter more than it ever has. That’s been a trend in the NBA. It’s important to understand the players as players, and sometimes, more importantly, it’s important to understand them as people.
“I just felt that (Ryan) had the mind for it,” Towns said. “We’re trying to take this organization to another level, and I think that with what where the league is turning, we need a modern approach. And I think there’s nobody in the league better than Ryan. As I’ve said before, I think he’s one of the best communicators and understands how important relationships are with his players.”
For Saunders, this is a dream come true and it feels like it’s directly out of a sports movie. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t come with hard work.
Of course, Saunders grew up in the Twin Cities when his dad was head coach for the Timberwolves starting in 1995. At that time, Saunders was an impressionable nine-year-old kid. And through his time being around the team, he took everything in. There were eight playoff appearances, including the Western Conference Finals run in 2004. Saunders will never forget, as a senior in high school, Kevin Garnett standing on the scorer's table with a towel in his hand.
You can’t ignore the similarities between the father and son. Watch tape of both of them coaching. You’ll notice the commonalities very quickly. And when it comes to working with people, Flip had an ability to connect with anyone from an usher, to a top exec, to a player.
Ryan is the same. He’s is so incredibly charismatic with everyone he talks to. He’ll ask you how your day is, how your family is. And he actually cares what your answer is.
But let’s be clear. This is Ryan’s job.
“I know he’d say, and I think it’s something that people wouldn’t expect. He’d say ‘you’re your own man’. I acknowledge that my father’s a big part of my life. A big part of my career. I’m Ryan Saunders. And for that reason, he’d tell me to continue to be my own man. Trust myself and trust the people around you.”
He should trust himself given all the preparing he’s done to get to this point. This is a coach who was one of the first to implement analytics to an iPad back when the iPad was first released in 2010. That’s when he first met Rosas. He was just 24 at the time.
“At the time, (Ryan) had put together an innovative iPad, the first year the iPad had come out, for NBA coaches,” Rosas said. “ . . . I saw his fire, and his perspective for doing things differently. Here you have this young guy on an NBA coaching staff, pitching technology at a time when that was not the most-popular thing to do.”
This grabbed the attention of basketball minds throughout the league. Saunders has widely been considered one of the top young basketball minds in the league.
As the Wolves transition to a modern approach to the game, Saunders pitched his vision to Rosas in a lengthy, full-day sit-down conversation.
Saunders is excited to have a full summer to implement new schemes offensively and defensively with his team. Offensively, expect the team to play faster and shoot more threes. On the other end, expect more switching with the occasional zone.
“Offensively we made some strides (last season), but defensively we need to make those strides,” Saunders said. “Now, philosophically, we’d like to see more, you see in a modern NBA and it’s going to be a work in progress this summer in developing the best possible schemes with our staff.”
The commitment from the players is already there proven by the fact that they are in Minneapolis in May. That hasn’t been the case over the last few years. There is going to be a culture change. That’s led by Rosas and trickles down to Saunders and then to the players, led by the team’s two cornerstone players.
“We’ve already been doing it. Day by day, we’re trying to change the culture here,” Towns said. “All of us are already back, two weeks ago, getting our job done and getting to work. These fans deserve the best. And me and (Andrew Wiggins) are damn sure going to give them that.”
It helps that both Towns and Wiggins have known Saunders since their rookie seasons. Saunders instills confidence in his players, but he is also very real with them. He’s not afraid to be honest, but the players know any criticism is coming from an authentic place.
“One of the things he does is be honest,” Towns said. “And players might not like what he has to say. Players may agree, may disagree. But one thing I always say about Ryan, when he tells you something, he’s telling you from the bottom of his heart how he feels. You respect regardless of how you feel about it.”
Saunders went on a media tour throughout the day in Minneapolis and fittingly ended the day with a volunteer event with his players and Rosas at the Cookie Cart, a Twin Cities non-profit organization that provides 15-18-year olds with lasting and meaningful work, life and leadership skills through experience and training in urban nonprofit bakeries.
Expect there to be more of this with Saunders and the Wolves—embracing the community and the people in it. Saunders understands the fans and the people in the state. More than anyone, he wants this team to succeed. He breathes, eats and sleeps Minnesota Timberwolves basketball.
“One of the biggest things that Ryan brings is passion and a passion that is different than any other passion because he represents everything that Minnesota is about, everything that the Timberwolves are about,” Rosas said. “That resonates with the players.”
While Tuesday was all smiles, there’s work to be done and Saunders knows that. It’s not always going to be fun. There will be some roadblocks and challenges. It will be a process, but one he wants the players to be excited about it. He certainly is.
“We’re going to have a great approach to things,” Saunders said. “An approach we want players to enjoy the work. To embrace the grind and to focus on getting better each day.”
“With that, we feel like great things are ahead.”