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Player Development is Key Under Ryan Saunders

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Plenty of players can and should improve under the new coach.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Draft is still around three weeks away and the free agency fireworks won’t go off for another month, but it’s already been an offseason packed with Timberwolves news.

Gersson Rosas took over the vacancy as president of basketball operations, which led to a litany of dominoes falling. The new POBO filled out his front office gang with fresh and esteemed faces like Sachin Gupta and Gianluca Pascucci, demoting the maligned Scott Layden in the process. Most importantly, however, he decided to hang on to Ryan Saunders as head coach, dropping the interim term he carried through the second half of the season.

There have been wildly mixed reactions to the former assistant’s hiring. Some think the nepotism that has plagued Minnesota’s front office since the beginning of time has a large part to play, and that Saunders’ uninspiring interim period was enough to see him out the door.

Others have been more lenient, choosing to reference Minnesota’s mile-long injury list, scarcity of depth, and remnants of Tom Thibodeau’s flaw-laden schemes as reasons why he never had a real shot at success.

Both sides have valid points, but the fact is that Saunders is here for the foreseeable future. Now, focusing on getting the most out of this middling roster should be pivotal. Sure, fringe players will be available with what little money they have to spend in free agency and the 11th pick in the draft could yield some value, but internal development will be the real distinguishing factor between a lottery team and a playoff squad.

Saunders was able to improve Minnesota’s offensive rating from 15th (109.4) under Thibodeau to 13th (111.5) during his reign. Impressive, but it mainly came by way of using Karl-Anthony Towns more often and more efficiently than Thibs did — something most coaches in the league could have easily achieved. On the other end, things were much sourer. Minnesota was 17th (109) in defensive rating with Thibs at the helm, but plummeted to 27th (115) during Saunders tenure.

Thankfully, player development may be Saunders’ most valuable coaching point early in his career. Over 10 years in the league he has worked in player development with both Minnesota and the Washington Wizards, providing an innate ability to connect with players and bring the best out of them.

Speaking at the new head coach’s inauguration press conference, Rosas echoed these sentiments.

“It was hard for me to find another leader that connected with our players at the level he did, not just on the court, but off the court.” he told media members, “It was hard for me to find a leader that shared my vision of how the game should be played — offensively, defensively, player development and our approach.”

In his 42 game stint as interim coach, there was a group of players who really excelled in their new coach’s system, particularly after spending some time with their new leader and adjusting to his style.

  • Karl-Anthony Towns

As aforementioned, Towns was the brightest star in Saunders’ player development sky. Over his three years in charge, Thibodeau was intent on shackling the franchise big with offensive constraints, and it was only right for the new man to free him and let one of the league’s premier offensive talents be unleashed.

More post, elbow, and pick-and-roll touches were just what the doctor ordered for KAT. Saunders threw a bunch of things at the wall with his superstar and rolled with whatever stuck. As a result, Towns paid him back tenfold.

From the All-Star break onward, Towns averaged 28.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists, nailing 53.3 percent of his total field goals and a blistering 42.9 percent of his 4.9 3-pointers a night. That video game run included a stretch where he scored over 40 points three times in nine days.

Before his second consecutive All-Star appearance, Towns put up 23.1 points, 12 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from downtown. Still legitimately great numbers, but once he was able to fully grasp Saunders’ offensive concept things looked so much easier and more free-flowing.

With Rosas preaching a faster and more spaced out offense and Saunders there to guide the ship, there is no reason why Towns can’t put up huge numbers for the entire season in 2019-20.

  • Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones’ improvement came from a more unfortunate situation than Towns’, but it was captivating nonetheless. The 23-year-old struggled mightily for much of the season, first with form then with a nasty ankle sprain.

However, when the injury bug ravaged through the rest of the squad, including guards Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose, he was there to stand up. Jones was thrust into the starting point guard role for the final 14 games of the season, with Saunders giving him enough leash to play through mistakes and start to round out the flaws that have hampered him throughout his career.

His record-breaking assist-to-turnover ratio — which actually got better as a starter — has been well-documented, but his increased willingness to score the ball while still playing his signature pesky defense flew under the radar.

In the last 14 games as a starter he averaged 10.9 points, 7.9 assists, and 0.9 turnovers, shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long-range. Those numbers aren’t going to win him any awards and the 3-point shooting still needs enhancement if he is going to become a reliable full-time starter, but they were big advancements from his previous play.

The most promising sign was those percentages. They were both major improvements on his year as a whole, where he finished with a 41.5 field goal percentage and 31.7 percent 3-point percentage.

Jones is a table-setter who keeps the offensive wheels spinning smoothly while chipping in with heady defense despite his athletic flaws, but he undoubtedly needs to become a more willing and effective scorer. Thus far under Saunders, he has taken the first step in that direction.

  • Gorgui Dieng

In the case of Towns and Jones, their improvement has arisen from more opportunity and the confidence that comes with that. In Gorgui Dieng’s case, Ryan Saunders showed he has other tricks up his sleeve.

Instead of giving him free rein to play through his mistakes, his new head coach took those reins away from Dieng, serving him with a string of DNP-CD’s. If Taj Gibson hadn’t eventually been shut down with a calf strain, Wolves fans may have never got to see the volcano that has been brewing inside Dieng erupt.

When it did, though, it was surprisingly beautiful. In the final 10 games of the season, Dieng looked as good as he ever has in his five-year Timberwolves career. He put up 12.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.6 blocks in just under 20 minutes a night, showing a newfound aggressiveness on both ends of the floor.

There were even times when he was unequivocally the best Wolf in the game, which is crazy when you consider how well Towns was playing at the time. Dieng has always been a confidence player and nobody would have been surprised if he lost it entirely after Saunders sidelined him. Instead, he took things the other way, playing harder than ever to prove that he belongs in the rotation.

It was a breath of fresh air to be happy with Dieng’s two-way play, and a bunch of the credit goes to Saunders for being brave enough to inspire him with punishment.

  • Josh Okogie

After bursting out of the gates with an energizer bunny mentality, Josh Okogie pretty obviously hit the rookie wall around the All-Star break. He was still capable of making jaw-dropping defensive plays on a nightly basis, but they became more irregular than early on and his shot (which was pretty broken to begin with) looked legless.

Then something inside him clicked. It wasn’t anything amazing, but it was clearly a second gust of wind. In the final 15 games (notice a trend?) of the season, Okogie was a much better version of himself, especially on the offensive end where he had struggled so much throughout his rookie campaign.

He bumped his scoring up to from 7.1 to 9.3 points per game and his shooting percentage up from 37.2 percent to 45 percent per game, per NBA.com. He even managed to connect on 31.7 percent of his triples, which is inching closer toward passable for a starting wing and a stark improvement over the 27.3 percent he was shooting beforehand.

Like Towns and Jones, this burst of energy came from the confidence that your coach isn’t going to scold you as Tom Thibodeau did. It came from being able to learn on the fly and adjust to life in the best basketball league in the universe.

Saunders and the entire team has expressed how much faith they have in Okogie since day one and perhaps this was the beginning of Okogie paying them back for that faith. The 20-year-old is a key block of this team’s foundation and will undoubtedly be one of the most intriguing storylines next season, so it’s encouraging to know that Saunders is there to consistently instill confidence in him.

  • Andrew Wiggins

This one might ruffle a few feathers, but it wouldn’t be Andrew Wiggins related if it didn’t, right? In many ways it was a season from hell for Wiggins, aside from his annual outlier outbursts, he was inefficient, lackadaisical, and uninspiring.

However, like the other players we have highlighted, he did start to come good as the season wound down. Of course, in all of these scenarios, team’s relaxing heading into the playoffs or lottery plays a part, but you’re kidding yourself if you think the large majority of players aren’t out on the court trying their best to win — no matter what part of the season it is.

With that in mind, it was impressive how Wiggins ended the season, even if his disastrous year as a whole still takes away from it. With Saunders intent to make the most out his maligned cornerstone, he stuck the ball in Wiggins’ hands more than he had before, using him as a pseudo point guard for long stretches.

The result was a mini-throwback to the pre-Jimmy Butler Wiggins. He was attacking the rim with ferocity, taking less mid-range bricks, and making some smart reads out of pick-and-roll play. The numbers back it up, with Wiggins averaging 21.5 points on 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from downtown. He also managed to rack up 3.5 assists per game, not an overly imposing stat, but a major jump from the 2.2 helpers he has averaged over his career.

History shows us to never take a string of red-hot Andrew Wiggins games as gospel, because you’ll likely end up disappointed. But with his contract virtually being untradeable, you have to have some hope.

Wiggins has expressed multiple times this offseason how comfortable he feels with Saunders in charge and how much he has helped him get back on track, which is a great sign. The 24-year-old is someone who needs to be feeling himself to really make a contribution, so hopefully Saunders’ expertise in player development and player relationships rub off on him.

Next year will be really defining for Maple Jordan, as well as the rest of the group of players mentioned here. If their end to the season was any indication, refinement of their play styles and production is on the cards.