ATLANTA – Ryan Saunders’ office in the Timberwolves practice facility is floor-level near one of the baskets. If he walks out of it, he’s two steps away from being open for a corner three.
Saunders said he can hear when somebody is nearby dribbling. Maybe he can even feel the vibrations. One of the regulars who’s hanging around after practice is guard Jeff Teague. So Saunders will venture out and talk to Teague. Of late their conversations have revolved around Teague’s place in the rotation, and it was during those talks that Teague let Saunders know: If you think it’s best for the team, I’ll come off the bench.
“We just talked about where he was comfortable,” Saunders said. “What could help the team and he said, ‘Hey I just want to win, man. I’m good with whatever role you want me in.’ I can’t say enough positive things about that interaction and how he handled that.”
Saunders made that move in Monday’s 125-113 win over the Hawks. Teague came off the bench and still played nearly 31 minutes, scoring eight points with eight assists. To him, the distinction of being a starter doesn’t mean as much as it might to some players. It’s similar to how Taj Gibson handled shifting to a bench role for Dario Saric last season.
“As long as I can help the team in some type of way,” Teague said. “And still get the chance to play significant minutes. But starter or not, I just want [Andrew Wiggins] and those guys to get a chance to be aggressive at the beginning of the game, let them play with that sense of urgency.”
Teague became a full-time starter in his third season in the NBA, in 2011-12 with Atlanta. In the past eight years, he came off the bench only five times.
There were a few things that led to this collective decision. Teague missed four games because of an illness, and in his absence, Wiggins played some of his best basketball as the Wolves’ primary ball handler.
“I’m just a huge fan, he’s one of my good friends,” Teague said. “I was just so happy for him. He’s been getting enough criticism for whatever, so I’m like, ‘I don’t want that to stop.’ ”
Then in Teague’s first game back, he came off the bench against the Spurs, the Wolves’ opponent Wednesday. Teague scored 18 points and had six assists leading the second unit.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, that kinda worked,’ ” Teague said.
All the while, the Wolves have been missing their primary backup point guard, Shabazz Napier, who has been out since Nov. 4 because of a right hamstring strain. Then Jake Layman got hurt last week against Utah. Teague had started the past five games before Monday, with the Wolves going 1-4 in that stretch.
Teague was comfortable broaching the subject with Saunders after seeing the success Wiggins had as the starting point guard and his own success with the bench unit. Teague said some of his best friends on the team, such as Gorgui Dieng and Josh Okogie, play a lot on the second unit.
“We’re really close off the court. So me and those guys have really good chemistry,” Teague said. “Also, we’ve got a lot of guys out. … We needed something.”
When Teague speaks to the media he can be hot or cold. Some days he is talkative and some days his answer are brief, as if he’d rather be doing anything else but that.
On Monday, Teague talked at length about what went into the decision, seemingly eager to discuss it.
Saunders said this move wasn’t set in stone, that the lineup could be fluid, and he thought about how he might hurt Teague’s pride before making it.
“You have to think if this is something that somebody really means,” Saunders said. “Somebody who’s been a starter his whole career and you have to make that tough decision.”
But Teague made it easy for him, and the Wolves hope they have found something because of it.
“That’s my whole thing: I always want guys to want to play with me,” Teague said. “Like … ‘He’s going to give me the ball, or he’s going to do this.’ I take pride in that, and I always just want to be able to help.”