WASHINGTON – Interim coach Ryan Saunders doesn’t have to stay in the team hotel when the Timberwolves are in the nation’s capital. Saunders still has a condominium near the Georgetown campus from when he was a Wizards assistant from 2009 to 2014.
The Wolves practiced Saturday at Georgetown — fitting because Saunders said his time with the Wizards was like going away to college, even though he attended the U.
“I got to get away, moved across the country,” Saunders said. “I learned a lot about myself and it helped prepare me for this opportunity.”
Saunders was only 23 when he joined the coaching staff of his father, Flip. It’s a city and an organization that means a lot to Ryan Saunders. It was here that he developed his style and approach as a coach — the personable and communicative mentor he has become. Those qualities have benefited him the most in his nearly two months since taking over the Wolves for Tom Thibdoeau.
“He’s always uplifting,” guard Derrick Rose said. “He’s always positive and I think as a coach or a leader, I think that you need that aura around the team.”
Developing that ‘aura’
In a separate interview at Saturday’s practice, veteran forward Anthony Tolliver used the same word — aura — when explaining how Saunders has changed the Wolves.
“I feel like coach’s aura is something that really permeates throughout a team,” Tolliver said. “He’s just a very positive guy. I feel like that’s the biggest change, our outlook on things as a team has been overall more positive since he’s taken over.”
It might be in Saunders’ nature to be the kind of encouraging leader, but his colleagues nurtured that during his time in Washington. In addition to his father, Saunders credited people like Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr. and Nuggets President Tim Connelly, both of whom worked with him with the Wizards, for encouraging him to engage players that way.
“They really showed the importance of relationships at a younger age,” Saunders said. “They showed how important that is and if you can develop that first, then everything else comes with it.”
‘Down to earth dude’
One of the players Saunders mentored during his time in Washington was guard Bradley Beal, who was 19 when he was drafted No. 3 overall in 2012. Saunders said he cherishes the relationships he built in Washington and does his best to stay in touch with those he worked with and coached, like congratulating Beal upon the birth of his first son.
Beal, now a two-time All-Star, said Saunders’ approach was to have one-on-one conversations with players when he needed to deliver constructive criticism.
“He wants guys to get better, to be on time, to be a pro,” Beal told the Star Tribune shortly after Saunders was promoted. “That’s really tough for young guys to understand, because when they first get in the league, complacency can start to kick in because you think you made it. You think you’ve arrived. He was always that guy that made sure that you have to get better.”
Saunders’ relatability was his key to being a good mentor, how that trust transferred to instruction when it came time to be serious about basketball, but Saunders also isn’t afraid to interact with players on a personal level.
“He’s a down-to-earth dude,” Beal said. “He’s a little quiet, because he definitely has that face, that expression of always being serious, always being locked in. But I think that’s what I love the most about him. The fact that he knows when it’s time to work. He knows when it’s time for basketball and distinguishes between the two.”
It can be a tough line to walk — being a coach while building deep personal relationship with players — but Saunders said he learned in Washington how best to navigate that dynamic.
“I learned from a number of people just the importance of holding players accountable but doing it in a respectful manner,” Saunders said.
Keeping it together
Saunders has built similar relationships with the Wolves. Upon his promotion, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins both said they had strong bonds with Saunders. The same goes for Tyus Jones.
“We have a great relationship, not only as coach player, but person to person off the court as well,” Jones said. “He’s someone who means a lot to me, so that just helps make everything easier on my end on the court and I think on his end as a coach.”
To a veteran like Rose, that’s how Saunders has been able to garner support in the Wolves locker room and one of the reasons why the team has stayed together despite a number of close losses this season.
“I think that’s how he earned a lot of guys’ respect — by being himself …” Rose said. “Whenever we’re watching film, it’s a teaching point where he’s not harping on us on what to do the entire time or beating us down. He’s really pointing out things that we can improve on the defensive side and offensive side with timing and communication.”
That has been a work in progress for the Wolves all season on the defensive end, and because of that they entered Saturday 4½ games back of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference after close losses to the Hawks and Pacers. Saunders said at Saturday’s practice one of his goals was “not letting a dark cloud hover.”
The style he honed not that long ago in Washington should help with that.
“With Ryan, it’s always uplifting,” Rose said. “So, as a player when you lose three or lose four in a row and he comes in and he’s positive, it gives you a different perspective on everything.”