Wolves turn to Saunders to help lead franchise modernization

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Three decades after their entry into the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves have deployed an aggressive plan to modernize their operation.

What better way, they concluded, than to hire the youngest head coach in the league?

Ryan Saunders, at the ripe old age of 33, has been tasked with using his lifelong passion for the organization, player-friendly communication style and tech-savvy analytical skill to help take the Timberwolves to championship contention, something they’ve only briefly reached in a mostly clumsy history. Saunders, the first millennial to hold the job in the NBA, is the 13th head coach the franchise has had in 30 seasons.

“It was hard for me to find another leader who could connect with our players at the level he has connected, not just on the court but off the court,” said president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, who feted Saunders at a news conference just two weeks after his own introduction . “It was hard for me to find a leader that shares my vision of how the game should be played, offensively and defensively.”

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At the direction of owner Glen Taylor and chief executive officer Ethan Casson, the Timberwolves have begun to reinvent themselves under Rosas as an innovative outfit that’s cutting-edge, player-centric and family-oriented.

“You can see the fresh air,” said Andrew Wiggins, who at age 24 has the second-longest tenure on the team.

Having already guided the team for the last 42 games of the season on an interim basis following the firing of president and coach Tom Thibodeau, carrying hearty endorsements from the roster, Saunders already had a foot in the door.

Taylor’s outspoken fondness for the son of the late Flip Saunders, the only Timberwolves coach to finish with a winning record over 10-plus years on the sideline and the executive who directed the drafting of both Kevin Garnett and Karl-Anthony Towns, sure made this hire seem predetermined. Rosas, however, interviewed four other assistant coaches around the league before settling on Saunders.

“Glen wants the best for this organization. He told me when I took the job, ‘This is your decision,'” Rosas said, adding: “I would never put individuals in a situation or go through a process that didn’t have purpose. They understood. Believe me, we had qualified candidates. We had very good discussions. This was a tough decision, but we made the right choice.”

His voice cracking when he mentioned his father, who died of cancer four years ago, Saunders spoke confidently of his ability to heed dad’s advice and navigate his own path.

“My father was a big part of my life, a big part of my career, but I’m Ryan Saunders, and for that reason, he’d tell me, ‘Be your own man,'” Saunders said.

One of the biggest questions surrounding Saunders will be his willingness to admonish his players and hold them accountable for unmet expectations should those scenarios arise, given the strong relationships he’s already established with them. Towns, for his part, has known him for five years, since Saunders ran his pre-draft workout.

“It definitely helps now moving forward having that permanent title,” Saunders said. “I understand sometimes it can sound as though it’s all hugs and things like that, but that’s not what this job is, and I understand that.”

Rosas said he was satisfied by the “thorough diligence” he conducted on this subject. He indicated, however, he doesn’t believe the NBA game dictates as much of a need for the bad cop role from the bench as it might have before.

“We’re dealing with a different generation of player,” Rosas said. “So I really value the relationship of being honest with individuals during the good times and during the bad times.”

Saunders had his grandmother, mother, three sisters and 38-weeks-pregnant wife in attendance for the event in the arena lobby. He also had about a half-dozen players present, including Towns and max-contract sidekick Wiggins.

Both players posted higher scoring averages and shooting percentages in the second half of the season under Saunders than in the first half with the hard-nosed Thibodeau, who is 61.

“The one thing about me and Ryan, we have a great relationship,” Towns said. “We just love to communicate. We’re social people.”

Unlocking the potential that Wiggins has will be one of the top priorities for Rosas, Saunders and their colleagues.

“How Ryan was putting the ball in my hands at the end of the season, I feel like I was getting back into a really good groove and the confidence and everything was there,” Wiggins said.

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