In the turbulent 48 hours between the time he became the interim Timberwolves coach Sunday and earning his first victory Tuesday, Ryan Saunders said he was trying to limit the amount of time and energy he devoted to his constantly buzzing phone.
In the interest of sanity, he tried only to respond to family, close friends and those within the Wolves organization.
One call he took was from one of his father Flip’s good friends, Tom Izzo.
The Michigan State coach said he could sense the nerves in Saunders’ voice.
“All he was talking about was getting the team ready, doing this, doing that,” Izzo said. “But I think in general just the way he handles things is a lot like Flip. I call him a Mini-Me. He’s a Mini-Flip.”
And just like Flip, Izzo said, coaching is what Ryan Saunders was born to do. It was evident in his childhood when he would stay awake to watch film with Flip, through high school, his time as a walk-on with the Gophers, then becoming an assistant in the NBA.
Ryan, 32, is about the same age as his dad was when Flip first was hired to coach a pro team — the Rapid City Thrillers of the old CBA. They even have some of the same sideline mannerisms, including a neck twitch noted by the Timberwolves this week.
Getting his first head coaching job after owner Glen Taylor fired Tom Thibodeau isn’t ideal timing for Saunders, but his whole life has prepared him for this moment, even if he allowed a small amount of doubt to creep.
“I think anything in life, you never know if you’re ready until you’re in the situation,” Saunders said.
But those who know him think he is more than ready.
“What’s crazy is that how many people know for sure what they want to do when they’re like 12, 13, 14 years old?” said former Gophers center and current analyst Spencer Tollackson. “And then to go actually make it happen at the pinnacle of their career at 32? To have the opportunity he has to be a coach at the highest level, pretty cool stuff.”
What you see is what you get
As Saunders’ roommate at the U, Tollackson got to see a side that few else have. His public demeanor comes across as staid — the tailored, fashionable suits, his carefully parted hair and the businesslike tone with which he answers questions from the media.
Tollackson said there is humor behind the gravity.
“There’s a side of Ryan that not a lot of people know who is extremely witty, very funny,” Tollackson said. “But if you’re not in his inner circle, you won’t necessarily see that.”
That’s because Saunders knew he had a public image to maintain as Flip’s son, and if Ryan was going to be a coach himself, he had to have this discipline. That everything he did, how he acted — no matter how trivial the situation — was building toward his own coaching career and a reflection on his family.
Perhaps the most important attribute that bleeds through from Saunders no matter the setting, Tollackson said, is Saunders’ honesty.
“He is the most forthright, up front and honest person that you’ll ever meet, which I think is extremely important in his relationships off the court,” Tollackson said. “Being a former player, that’s the No. 1 thing you want in a coach is honesty. You want to know where you stand, right?”
This, more than X’s and O’s, seems to be Saunders’ calling card as a coach — the way he builds relationships with his players. It’s no secret this was not Thibodeau’s strength as a coach and where Saunders most diverges from his predecessor. Andrew Wiggins said he has a lot of “trust” in Saunders. Karl-Anthony Towns said he and Saunders have a “great” relationship. You could see tangible evidence of that bond in the aftermath of Saunders’ first win Tuesday in Oklahoma City, when the team doused him with water as he entered the locker room postgame.
All-Star guard Bradley Beal, who played for Saunders when Saunders was a Wizards assistant from 2009 to ’14, saw that scene and wasn’t surprised by the emotion in it.
“He’s a true players’ coach,” Beal said. “I think the fact he’s young will help him out in the long run as well. He just enjoys the game, man. He’s a true basketball mind.”
Age is nothing but a number
Saunders wasn’t that much older than Beal when Beal began his NBA career in 2012 at 19. Even though Saunders never played in the NBA, Beal said Saunders imprinted on him what it meant to be a professional.
“It was things that you think you should already know, but he always re-emphasized them,” Beal said. “He always drilled it until you understood it, and I definitely credit him for that. He helps you not just get in the league but teaches you how to stay here, what it takes, the work, the dedication.”
Having a relationship with players doesn’t mean you have to fear criticizing them, and Beal said Saunders was never afraid to dish it out.
“He’ll never embarrass you or try to cause a scene. It was always constructive with him,” Beal said. “It was always out of a place of love and care.”
This is how Saunders can win over a locker room of players who are around his age or older, Izzo said. It’s how he comports himself on a day-to-day basis, how he will work to gain their respect and won’t back down when he has something to say.
“Relationship doesn’t mean it’s always buddy-buddy,” Izzo said. “I think that’s a misnomer. The only thing they relate to is those players want someone they respect. It doesn’t matter if he’s 30, 50, 70 or 90. If they respect him, they respect his knowledge and they know that he’s in a foxhole with them, that’s what’s important.”
Izzo, from his perch at Michigan State, knows the coaching industry as well as anyone. He didn’t try to sugarcoat the kind of challenge Saunders faces as an interim coach trying to make the playoffs.
“It’s a tough situation he’s in, let’s face it,” Izzo said. “I don’t wish that on anybody.”
The time is now
But Izzo thinks Saunders is more than ready for it. He tells a story about how in 2009, Flip Saunders was with Izzo as Michigan State was in the Final Four. Flip was exhausting Izzo and giving him so many plays to install that Izzo didn’t know what to do with all of them.
“I always laughed and told him you ruined my grease board,” Izzo said.
That was indicative of how Flip was and the kind of maniacal dedication to basketball he passed on to Ryan — that lives on through his son even after Flip’s death in 2015. That’s one reason why Izzo thinks Saunders’ age is immaterial to his potential success. Because of Flip, basketball occupies so many corners and crevices of Ryan’s brain — more than most people who have coached for years.
“The way he was brought up, he’s got a little edge on some people that weren’t brought up that way,” Izzo said.
One of those Flip plays showed in the first play Saunders called as a head coach against Oklahoma City, 5-52 Twist, a fitting nod to Flip from Ryan, who, if all goes well these next three months, could be a bridge from the organization’s past to its future.
“He’d tell me that he was proud of me,” Saunders said. “He knew this was a goal — eventually.”
Eventually just came a little sooner than expected.