It’s hard to think of a more difficult rookie coaching season than the one Ryan Saunders just went through with the Timberwolves after he signed a multiyear contract at the start of the 2019-2020 season to become the youngest head coach in the NBA.
The Wolves went 19-45 and continued a big overhaul of their roster under President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and then saw their season end with 18 games remaining. And while 22 teams were invited to the NBA bubble in Orlando, the Wolves were not.
With the Lakers topping the Heat to win the NBA championship, Saunders was asked for his thoughts on the bubble and the end of the season.
“Well, first off, just personally, it hurt. It hurt me to watch, early on,” he said. “I still forced myself — even when I was a little [upset] early on, the fact that we weren’t playing, just where you know you’re upset for your own team because you want those guys to have an opportunity to compete — I still watched.
“But the league did a great job, Commissioner [Adam] Silver and his group, his staff, deserve a lot of credit. But then everybody involved, players, coaches, management, training staff, the fact that people were able to be so diligent and stick to guidelines and accept that environment for so long, it’s a big credit to this league.”
When it comes to where the Wolves are headed, Saunders said the team is in a great position with the Nos. 1, 17 and 33 picks in the NBA draft, which will be held on Nov. 18.
But so far, they cannot do in-person workouts.
“Can’t do any of that. It has been a lot of Zoom meetings and interviews and then just evaluating,” Saunders said. “We do a lot of work, and we have a number of people in this organization, [assistant general manager] Gianluca Pascucci, he does a lot of work with our draft. These guys are putting together a great plan and a great step-by-step process to what we’ll do.”
While there might not be consensus on who the No. 1 prospect is, there are some intriguing prospects.
That includes Anthony Edwards, the shooting guard from Georgia; LaMelo Ball, the great point guard prospect who played in Australia last year; James Wiseman, the Memphis center who could play well alongside Karl-Anthony Towns; and Dayton power forward Obi Toppin.
“A lot of players are interesting to me, a lot of them,” Saunders said. “Like I said, we’re open. This draft has a number of very talented players and we’re a group that is very open-minded.”
Developing the roster
It seems like a long time ago, but this Wolves club was showing some real development.
After adding D’Angelo Russell in the Andrew Wiggins trade, they also added Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez and James Johnson.
That group meshed well with young Wolves Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver, Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin and Jake Layman.
The Wolves topped the Clippers 142-115 on Feb. 8 at Target Center.
They beat the Heat 129-126 in Miami on Feb. 26, one of only five home losses the Heat suffered this season.
Now Beasley, Hernangomez and McLaughlin are restricted free agents and Johnson has a $16 million player option.
“We obviously are very, very happy with the things that we were able to see from those guys that are free agents this summer,” Saunders said. “They’ll continue to be priorities. Gersson, we work closely, and it has been a great partnership of getting guys that fit our time line, fit the system, the style of play that we want to play and guys that fit around Karl and D’Angelo.”
Saunders made his name as one of the best development coaches when it came to working with young stars Towns and Wiggins.
Last season Towns was incredible statistically while battling injuries, posting career highs with 26.5 points and 4.4 assists per game while also grabbing 10.8 boards. The only other player to post those kind of numbers was MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
So how do you take Towns to the next level?
“A lot of the things that he does are things that you can’t teach, his feel for the game, his natural ability, his natural talent,” Saunders said. “So we need to continue to add to his game, add different counters offensively, use his versatility in different ways.
“That was one of the things that was so disappointing about not playing late in the season because we felt we were going to be able to do more things with some of the other guys that we acquired around him, but also continue to grow his defensive ability. That’s as a team, as a whole, we need to be better defensively.”
Virus hit home
The Wolves were affected by the coronavirus as much as any organization because of the death of Towns’ mother, Jacqueline Cruz.
Saunders said that while he can’t wait to play again, the Wolves and the NBA will do it the right way.
“I’m looking forward to it. I know that. I don’t know when it will be or what it will feel like, but I know safety is the No. 1 priority during this coronavirus,” Saunders said. “We obviously know as an organization, especially, it hit us at home with the loss of Jackie Towns. I know how proud she would be of her son and how he has handled himself and the way that he will continue to honor her life.
“But it’s also just a very, very harsh reminder of how tough this virus is. We really need to be diligent in doing our best to follow protocols, follow guidelines and be a part of the solution as we move forward.”
Saunders said the recent in-market practices helped to create positives out of a tough season.
“It was huge. We were able to cover a lot, both foundational on the court, things that we feel are staples within our philosophy, but then also try some other things that we want to take a look at leading into next season,” Saunders said. “To simulate a competitive environment with actual game experience at Target Center for our players was something that I know they valued and something that they definitely longed for during this quarantine and especially during that shelter in place.
“But we were also able to do a number of other things off the court, whether it be bonding, getting to know one another at our hotel, whether it be dinners or using that time for voter registration, educating ourselves on social issues, inequities in our society. And doing good in the end, working with the Sanneh Foundation in St. Paul, as our bubble technically burst, to help others register to vote.”