MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Saunders has always had basketball in his blood, the consummate coach’s son who as a kid would sometimes doze off on the couch after joining dad for a late-night review of game film.
Roughly three years after the death of his father, Flip Saunders, the 32-year-old Ryan Saunders has assumed the job in Minnesota he’s been aiming for all along, albeit earlier and more abruptly than ever expected.
“He is very capable of doing this job. We all have a lot of confidence in him,” Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We’re ready to follow him. He’s our new captain.”
Appointed interim coach of Minnesota on Sunday after Tom Thibodeau was fired halfway through his third season, Saunders ran practice for the first time on Monday before the team took off for a game at Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
“You never know if you’re ready until you’re in the situation,” Saunders said, “but I have great support.”
His dad, by far the winningest coach in Timberwolves history, would of course be proud. His mom stopped by his house for a congratulatory hug after the change was made.
Team owner Glen Taylor has long been an admirer of the Saunders family. Several Timberwolves players attended the coach’s wedding. Simply put: There’s hardly a member of the Timberwolves organization who carries more respect than Ryan Saunders.
“He’s the only coach that’s been here since my rookie year,” said shooting guard Andrew Wiggins, who was acquired by Flip Saunders in his role as executive of the roster in a trade before the 2014-15 season. “There’s been a lot of changes, but I trust him. I have a good relationship with him. I think he’s going to do a great job, especially because you can talk to him. He’s not too much older than me, so I think we’re going to go in the right direction.”
Thibodeau was picked for his experience with winning teams and his acumen as a defensive whiz, hired to use his demanding, detailed style to bring out the best in franchise cornerstones Wiggins and Towns. Though the Timberwolves ended their 13-year absence from the playoffs last spring, they’ve by and large underachieved since Thibodeau, who is 60, took over.
Saunders is younger than three of his players, and he appeared a bit nervous but handled his first news conference smoothly while surrounded by a horde of reporters and cameras on the team’s practice court. He was quick to compliment Thibodeau and careful not to make any proclamations about how the team might look different under his guidance.
“I’ve got a lot of ideas, but you’ve got to see what’s best for the team,” Saunders said.
He’s got a 42-game audition before the organization must decide who the next coach will be. Former Timberwolves player and assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg, who replaced Thibodeau in Chicago, will be available, having been fired last month. Every candidate for the job, certainly, will offer more experience than Saunders, who spent five seasons as an assistant coach with Washington before coming to Minnesota.
“If you look at something as a trial, I think that’s when you start putting pressure on yourself or other people that just isn’t there,” Saunders said.
Thibodeau, who was one game short of the exact midpoint of his five-year contract that’s worth about $40 million, was frequently booed during introductions at Target Center, where the Wolves are next-to-last in the league with an average of 14,765 tickets distributed per game. When the team returns home to play Dallas on Friday, the public address announcement of Saunders is sure to receive a rousing cheer.
“I’m excited to see what he’ll do, because he’s a very enthusiastic coach and he’s a very good communicator,” said general manager Scott Layden, who was hired by Thibodeau, also the president of basketball operations, and faces an uncertain future with the club.
The same can be said for Derrick Rose, who flourished in Chicago under Thibodeau and had his career waylaid by a bad knee until his former coach forged a reunion last year in Minnesota. Though he will miss his sixth straight game with an ankle injury on Tuesday, Rose has hit the 25-point mark eight times to reach his highest scoring average (18.9 points per game) since the 2011-12 season, the year after he won the NBA MVP award.
Rose said he was shocked and hurt by the dismissal, but also insisted the change wouldn’t hinder his resurgence.
“He jump-started my career again and for that, I’ll always be thankful. But everybody that thinks that it’s going to stop, kill yourself. It’s just not,” Rose said. He later apologized on Twitter for the insensitivity of his remark.
The pace of the offense in practice Monday was faster, Rose said, hinting at one potential difference that could be on display. Towns, while crediting Thibodeau for pushing him to grow “into a better man,” spoke optimistically of having more of a voice in the on-court strategy and playing more of a “new-school NBA” style under Saunders.
“Thibs has been in the game for a long time. His style was his style. We know what it was. We are going to have a little more change to our game,” Towns said.