MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - The face leading the Minnesota Timberwolves’ bench next season might be familiar, but the team and the approach are likely to look vastly different.
Ryan Saunders was introduced Tuesday as the next Timberwolves’ coach, the 11th in franchise history. Saunders was named the interim coach on Jan. 6, after Tom Thibodeau was fired as head coach and president of basketball operations following a 19-21 start in his second season.
Saunders finished 17-25 over his final 42 games, but received vocal support from the team’s key pieces in Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and soon-to-be restricted free agent Tyus Jones. All were present at Tuesday’s news conference in the Target Center lobby, which featured the Saunders’ family, several Timberwolves’ players and a majority of the team’s staff.
New President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas was tagged with the responsibility of hiring the next Wolves’ coach. He had several conversations with Saunders, but also did his due diligence by interviewing external candidates. Those included Miami Heat assistant Juwan Howard, Portland Trail Blazers assistant David Vanterpool and New Orleans assistant Chris Finch.
In the end, Saunders’ relationships with the current players and his vision for where the Wolves can go was a match for Rosas. Saunders, 33, and Rosas, 40, become the youngest head coach on front office head combination in the NBA.
“One of the biggest things Ryan brings is passion. He represents everything that Minnesota is about. That the Timberwolves are about, and that resonates with the players,” Rosas said.
Saunders started the news conference with a handful of thank yous and acknowledgements to the Timberwolves, his family, his players and his wife, Hayley, who is 38 weeks pregnant with their first child.
He finished fighting back tears, acknowledging his father, the late Flip Saunders. The former Timberwolves coach got them to their only Western Conference Finals appearance in 2004, and loved everyone and anyone who was a Wolves fan. He served as Ryan’s life-long mentor, throughout his days as a college walk-on at the University of Minnesota and eventually to the start of his coaching career.
Ryan Saunders joined the Timberwolves’ coaching staff in 2014. Now, he’s in charge of the sidelines like his father once was. Flip died in October 2015 after a battle with cancer.
“I know he’s here and he’s looking down. I know he’d say that there’s no place else he’d rather have me get my start in coaching,” Ryan said. “So I want to make sure I acknowledge my Dad, Flip, and thank him for putting me in this. I’m so blessed for this opportunity in a market that’s so special to me and my family.”
In true coaching fashion, Saunders said Tuesday he’s excited to be with the Timberwolves long-term, but added there’s work to do. He inherited a rocky situation after the Jimmy Butler trade and Thibodeau’s dismissal.
Rosas said Saunders didn’t get a fair evaluation with 17 wins in 42 games as a head coach. He didn’t have a training camp, had limited practice time and dealt with a rash of injuries. The Wolves were without Robert Covington, Tyus Jones, Taj Gibson, Loul Deng, Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague for extended stretches due to injuries.
Even Karl-Anthony Towns missed two games out of the All-Star break in the concussion protocol after being involved in a crash with a semi-truck. Andrew Wiggins said Tuesday it’s breath of fresh air to have Saunders back on the bench. His genuine personality and ability to lead make him the right choice for Minnesota.
“Just how he cares. I feel like it’s deeper than basketball for him. He genuinely wants to see somebody do good. He cares about how that person is doing. He asks how you’re doing, how your family is doing, sits down with you,” Wiggins said. “He’ll see if you’re struggling a little bit, he’ll come over late and work out with you. He just cares, I feel like not a lot of people are like that.”
Towns already notices a change in team philosophy and culture, and it started before Saunders was retained. Eight players were at Tuesday’s news conference, and as many as 11 are currently in the Twin Cities doing offseason workouts.
Towns’ was one of Saunders’ biggest supporters towards the end of the season. The two have a close relationship and go back to before the Wolves took him No. 1 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, just a few months before Flip’s death.
Ryan Saunders worked with Towns in his pre-draft workout.
“His dad was his mentor. He’s the one who shaped him as a coach, shaped him as a person, the jokes, the smile, the emotion. His dad did a hell of a job raising a son like Ryan,” Towns said. “We’re very fortunate that we get to see him on the sidelines from now on.”
The harsh reality for the Wolves is they haven’t been a playoff contender since Flip Saunders paced the sidelines. Their only playoff appearance in the last 15 years came last year, in Jimmy Butler’s only full season in Minnesota.
Rosas talked at his introductory news conference earlier this month of “questioning the norm in everything we do” and “action over words.” He’s committed to a modern brand of basketball that requires more running the floor and shooting from the perimeter, like what the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets specialize in. Rosas spent 17 seasons with the Rockets before coming to the Wolves.
“We have to win our fans’ trust back and we have to show them we’re committed to something different,” Rosas said.
Inspired by what his father accomplished with the Timberwolves, Ryan Saunders wants to pave his own path in Minnesota. He wants open lines of communication, keeping things positive and letting his players know he cares, about basketball and life. The hope is that translates to better vibe in the locker room, and a more consistently competitive brand on the court.
If Flip were still around, Ryan said, he would want him to be himself.
“He’d say you’re your own man. I acknowledge that my father is a big part of my life, a big part of my career. But I’m Ryan Saunders. For that reason, he’d continue to tell me to be your own man, trust yourself, trust the people around you,” Ryan said.