Seated in front of his family, Ryan Saunders was able to prevent his emotions from overwhelming him Tuesday as the Timberwolves introduced the former interim coach as their permanent one.
A few times Saunders talked about his late father, Flip, and choked up, but kept from crying.
“I know he’s here. I know he’d say there’s no place else he’d rather have me get my start in coaching,” Saunders said.
Moments later, Saunders’ mom Debbie did the same.
“I miss [Flip] every day,” Debbie Saunders said, holding back tears. “But it’s also rewarding to see my son do well, too. … Flip would be very proud of him. We always saw this in our son. From the time he was 3, there was a vision for him we couldn’t even comprehend because he was so mature for his age.”
Now 33, Saunders is primed to lead the team his father helmed for so long — becoming the rare father-son duo to be head coach of the same major pro sports franchise. It’s a team that is entering a new era with President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas, who made the decision to hire Saunders after interviewing four other candidates last week in Chicago.
In his opening remarks, Rosas shot down the notion that owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, or anyone else in the organization, forced Rosas into keeping Saunders.
“That couldn’t be any further from the truth,” Rosas said, adding that he didn’t feel comfortable hiring anybody unless he was able to evaluate what candidates were on the market.
“It’s my job in my role to make hard decisions. And if Ryan wasn’t the best option for us, we would have the best candidate here. Fortunately the process worked out and Ryan is here.”
Now, the pair will go about remaking the Wolves. Saunders is known to have a good relationship with his players — and several showed up Tuesday, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — but Rosas said Saunders will be able to draw the line between being a friend and being a coach while capitalizing on his relationship with the players.
“We’re going to be able to get our players to do things that they normally typically wouldn’t do for most coaches because of that relationship.” Rosas said. “We’re dealing with a different generation of player. … I’m a big believer that you have to have relationships with players to be able to have good conversations and bad conversations.”
Saunders downplayed the perception that he might be too friendly with players at the expense of holding them accountable.
“I understand sometimes it can sound as though it’s all hugs and things like that, but that’s not what this job is and I understand that,” he said.
Ideally, Saunders and Rosas would like the Wolves to play an up-tempo offense that shoots a healthy volume of three-pointers. They also need to greatly improve on defense. On both ends of the floor, the key is building around Towns, Saunders and Rosas said.
“People talk about the modern NBA and they automatically just think three-point shooting and they just think fast pace. Well there can be a lot of other things that go into that,” Saunders said. “[Towns] commands a lot of attention. With that, becoming better three-point shooters will help make us fall into that modern NBA category.”
Added Rosas: “A guy like Karl-Anthony Towns in the open floor and his ability to change the game, we’re going to maximize that. You’ll notice our philosophy is going to be an open-floor, faster pace and more efficient play overall on both ends. Defensively is how can we maximize Karl-Anthony in every sense of the word to make him the best player he can be.”
One of the first orders of business for Rosas and Saunders is assembling a coaching staff. There has been some speculation that the Wolves would hire a veteran assistant who specializes in defense to be Saunders’ de factor defensive coordinator, considering that unit was one of the worst in the league last season. Rosas said there would be more than just a “defensive coordinator.”
“We’re going to get the best offensive coordinator. We’re going to get the best defensive coordinator. We’re going to get the best player development coordinator,” Rosas said. “They’re going to execute our vision together. And Ryan will manage that program as a whole.”
Saunders said it didn’t bother him that Rosas looked around before handing him the keys. But the keys are his now, as he and Rosas try to get the Wolves back on course.
“You feel that going through this process helps solidify your position, but also it helps solidify credibility,” Saunders said. “I saw that today.”