There has been one coach who has been with the young cornerstones of the Timberwolves, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, since the day they first put on a uniform — Ryan Saunders.
It was Saunders who was on the bench working alongside his father, Flip, for Wiggins’ first year here in 2014-15. It was Saunders who stayed on the bench following Flip’s death in 2015, when Towns made his debut.
But now Saunders will no longer sit on the bench if he doesn’t feel like it.
“It’s a circle that really did come full circle,” Towns said. “I think Ryan would hope that this situation, this day, would come with better circumstances, but we are just all going to rally behind him every single game.”
On Monday, the Wolves proceeded with the awkward but necessary business of moving on without former coach Tom Thibodeau, whom owner Glen Taylor fired Sunday, and had their first practice under Saunders, the 32-year-old interim head coach.
For Saunders, it had been an emotional 24 hours, and he expressed his thanks to Thibodeau and assistant Andy Greer, who the team also fired. He also said he was grateful for the opportunity to be a head coach for the first time in his life, especially with the organization and in the state where his father is a hoops legend. Saunders took a moment to soak that in Sunday night with his mom, Debbie.
“It’s been obviously a difficult time in terms of three years, for the family, losing my father. So getting her to smile a little more is a good thing,” Saunders said.
There is little time to celebrate, however, since the Wolves have a game Tuesday night against Oklahoma City, and there’s Taylor’s hopes that the team can still make the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference.
With Saunders in charge, there likely will be a different tone. Guard Derrick Rose, who thanked Thibodeau for rescuing his career, said Saunders wants the team to play at a faster pace.
But the off-court dynamic might contain the biggest change. During his time as an assistant, Saunders has cultivated close relationships with his players. Some even attended his wedding in 2017. It’s a contrast from the hard-charging Thibodeau, who wasn’t always an open book with his players.
“It’s a special relationship, and communication is extremely important obviously within a relationship, and I’m looking forward to growing that communication with these guys,” Saunders said. “Because I really do think if you can get guys to really listen and really be in touch with you, then they’ll be willing to do more for you out on that court.”
Wiggins said he can “trust” Saunders because of his ability to communicate.
“I think he’s going to do a great job, especially because you can talk to him,” Wiggins said. “He’s not too much older than me, so I think we’re going to go in the right direction. … I feel like we’re all in a special situation.”
It’s not quite as rosy from an outside perspective. The Wolves still face an uphill climb to make the playoffs, and even though Saunders is the interim coach and Scott Layden remains the general manager, questions remain over the future of the organization beyond this season. Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, said his “hope” is Saunders performs well enough to earn the job permanently while Layden, who was Thibodeau’s hand-picked general manager, said he wasn’t concerned about his own job security.
“To be honest with you, I don’t spend a minute thinking about that,” Layden said. “I spend every waking hour I have trying to get this team better and to get them into a winning way.”
It’s something Thibodeau couldn’t do on a consistent enough basis to keep his job. Saunders and the rest of the team will have to get on the same page quickly, and move past some of the weird feelings they had Monday. The players who spoke — Wiggins, Rose and Towns — all said they didn’t see the move coming.
“I just have grown into a better man through everything. And I thank him for pushing me on the court and for everything,” Towns said of Thibodeau. “There’s a lot of things I personally went through with ‘Thibs,’ and I have nothing but love, respect and admiration for him.”
Rose, whose career has been rejuvenated after his reunion with Thibodeau following their time in Chicago, said he was “hurt” Thibodeau was gone.
“He’s the only coach that believed in me,” Rose said.
Now the rest of the team has to put its faith in Saunders.
“It happened so bang-bang quick that I’m really trying to process everything,” Saunders said. “Just take things hour by hour right now.”
But Saunders said he isn’t struggling for ways to improve the Wolves.
“You always have ideas when you’re not in the position of making the decisions, and then it’s your chance to implement those ideas,” he said.
But if Saunders is going to succeed as coach of the Wolves and hang on to the job, his communication might be the key.
“He is our new captain,” Towns said.