It’s been a roller coaster ride thus far for Minnesota’s interim coach Ryan Saunders. Starting his coaching career at age 32 is difficult enough, but he has had to deal with a plethora of injuries to key players and a roster that, outside of Karl-Anthony Towns, hasn’t always played up to their full potential.
Even with inconsistency staining his first 17 games as the lead man, there has been plenty to learn about the style of coaching Saunders brings to the table. So let’s dig deeper into three things we’ve learned.
1 - Willingness to use his roster
Unlike his predecessor Tom Thibodeau, Saunders didn’t get a say on what players he gets to deploy on a nightly basis. He simply had to pick up what Thibs put down and run with it, and so far he has done a fantastic job at utilizing every weapon in his arsenal.
For the most part, injuries to Robert Covington, Derrick Rose, and Tyus Jones have forced his hand, but the former Wolves and Wizards assistant coach has shown he can be flexible and creative with who he rolls out on the court.
Players like Luol Deng and Jerryd Bayless have reignited their careers under Saunders, and he has empowered rookie Josh Okogie in a way that Tom Thibodeau never did. With the faith that putting in a good shift will result in an enlarged role, fringe rotation players and mistake-prone rookies seem to work harder each and every game. They no longer fear getting pulled every time they make a mistake. They are allowed to work through their problems and find effective solutions.
His willingness to use the tools he has been given isn’t just limited to the smaller names on the roster, though. Saunders’ coaching versatility is also abundantly clear with how he deploys the players that are regulars in the rotation.
He has trotted out several lineups that didn’t see the light of day previously, most obviously the recent change to insert Dario Saric into the starting lineup. With the 24-year-old blossoming in the first five, Taj Gibson has been given a chance to go to work against second units.
In the minuscule two-game sample size with this lineup configuration, Minnesota has posted two wins and holds a +8.9 net rating. The 34-year-old Gibson has even spent some time at the backup center position — a ploy that fans have been screaming out for since Saric arrived in the Twin Cities.
Saunders still has some things to learn about dealing with his roster, but so far he has been open to trying new things, and that’s a huge plus.
2 - His Late-Game Play-Calling Needs Work
Overall, Minnesota’s offensive schemes under Ryan Saunders have seemed far more diverse than they were with Thibs at the helm. He focuses more on ball-movement and cutting, and scarcely relies on isolation ball to get points.
However, he has had some problems designing effective plays when the game is on the line. The most glaring examples came in the overtime win against Memphis, and the one-point loss against Denver.
In a must-win game against a sinking Grizzlies team, the Timberwolves ended regulation with a disastrous Jerryd Bayless isolation play. As previously mentioned, Saunders rarely instructs one-on-one basketball, but it is a common theme around the league to go to it on final possessions. The main reason being that it minimizes the chance of a live-ball turnover ten-fold.
With that in mind, it still was far from ideal to put the ball in the hands of Jerryd Bayless. As mentioned, he has been a solid piece in Tyus Jones and Derrick Rose’s absence, but heaping too much late-game responsibility on his shoulders was destined to fail. Even if you are going to go to him, perhaps trying to get closer to the cup and increase the chances of a foul call is the way to go, instead of having him launch up a 22-footer one step inside the 3-point line:
Unfortunately, Saunders doubled down on this mantra in overtime, choosing Andrew Wiggins as the shot-taker this time. In a stroke of luck, it was a call that was only saved by a Karl-Anthony Towns offensive rebound and miracle jumper as time expired.
There was more time left on the clock than the Bayless miss, but Wiggins squandered that advantage by opting to dribble five feet behind the 3-point line until there were just five seconds remaining. Again, instead of driving to the cup to attempt a simpler shot or force defenders in to make a kick-out pass, Wiggins threw up a patented mid-range fader.
The result was far from surprising:
It is harder for big men like Karl-Anthony Towns to get looks in late-game situations from the post, with the chances of a swarming double-team extremely likely, but it would be nice to give the Wolves’ best player the ball in some capacity. You could have him receive at the top of the arc and try to work his way down, or let him use his improved passing ability to find an open man from the post when the double does come.
That sentiment was echoed loud and clear in the Denver tilt, as KAT was once again ignored, this time resulting in a painstaking loss. While Towns was left in the key without a touch, Bayless made his pass to Luol Deng in the corner, who failed to connect on a triple with Nikola Jokic in his face:
For all his good work, Saunders has been caught lacking in several final-second situations, which may prove costly as Minnesota try to make one last run at a playoff position.
3 - The players love him
Whether it’s the players mobbing him after his first win in Oklahoma City, Tyus Jones heading to Instagram to publicly declare his love for him, or the smiles that seem to come far more often during games and practices, it’s obvious the Wolves love Ryan Saunders.
His friendly demeanor has been a refreshing change from the drill sergeant mentality that Tom Thibodeau made (in)famous. Years of being an assistant coach and helping players like Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones transition from rookies to seasoned competitors helps his case, but Saunders being a genuinely likable fellow is the real reason.
In a KG Area 21 sit down with franchise legend Kevin Garnett, Karl-Anthony Towns put his respect and love for Saunders in his own words.
“It’s more of like a father ... and you never want to disappoint your father, so it kind of gives you a different drive,” he said.
In the same segment, Saunders himself was quick to return the love.
“I love these players. I love this organization,” he said.
When two sides have that brimming mutual respect, it’s easy to envision players going out on the court and laying it all on the line every night. When you know that your head coach is there not only as a mentor but as a friend, winning becomes a partnership — not a dictatorship.
Perhaps it’s the Thibs hangover speaking, but it is super refreshing to see a team that wants to play for their coach. Even if the results haven’t been completely up to scratch so far. It’s still unclear whether Saunders will have his ‘interim’ tag dropped for next season or if owner Glen Taylor will head in a different direction, but you can bet that the players prefer the former.
If Taylor does go out and get a new head coach, finding someone who can connect with the players on a similar level to Saunders should be right up there on his list of priorities. For now, the players and fans will ride this wave and see where they end up with the second generation of the famous Saunders name.