Ryan Saunders showed us his bite Sunday night.
Timberwolves followers have witnessed Saunders in the role of good cop for years. But how he handles moments that demand stern action was an important unknown entering this season, his first without the interim coach label.
“Don’t get it twisted,” Karl-Anthony Towns cautioned at media day. “He also has a side where he’s a dog, you know? He’s a dog, especially when it comes to getting things right, doing what he commands and asks of us.”
Saunders received ardent support from his players during the process of advancing from interim coach to landing the full-time gig. The lobbying on his behalf revealed a healthy amount of respect and admiration for Saunders, who is particularly close to Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
At age 33, Saunders isn’t much older than his players. A few of them attended his wedding. They share a deep connection on a personal level that took root during Saunders’ years as an assistant coach.
Trust is a vital part of any coach-player relationship, but so is accountability and understanding the line that exists between boss and employee.
Sunday night against Miami, Saunders showed a small display of forcefulness: benching Wiggins in the second quarter. And that was as encouraging as anything that transpired on the court in the win.
Wiggins committed two turnovers and a foul in a span of 30 seconds. Saunders took him out of the game and benched him the last three minutes of the half.
Saunders’ message was so subtle that fans at Target Center might not have even been aware. He got his point across in his own way, calmly but constructively. He punished Wiggins by taking away playing time, rather than ignore the problem and allow Wiggins to sabotage the game just because he holds a max contract.
“I made a lot of dumb decisions, and I told him to keep me accountable,” Wiggins said after the game. “If I do something wrong, make me pay for it. He did that. I feel like that woke me up, too. I’ve got to be better.”
Novel concept, accountability. The fact that Wiggins volunteered that tidbit, that he asked to be held accountable, is a sad commentary that suggests he didn’t receive that minimum standard under the previous regime. Cursing and screaming nonstop on the sideline shouldn’t be misconstrued as holding players accountable for their performance.
“A lot can be made of relationships,” Saunders said. “And I know a lot of people might roll their eyes at the relationship aspect of coaching and things with players, but that goes both ways.”
No eye-rolling if that trust factor allows players to accept tough-love teaching moments because they respect Saunders and know his frustration or disappointment comes from a sincere place. That’s the essence of coaching, especially at the pro level where money, ego and other agendas can interfere with that symbiotic relationship.
“Don’t get it twisted.He also has a side where he’s a dog, you know? He’s a dog, especially when it comes to getting things right, doing what he commands and asks of us.”
Wiggins’ brief benching wasn’t a serious offense that bubbled into anything more than it deserved. He had a terrible stretch, Saunders pulled him out the game and shared some words with him, and then Wiggins started the third quarter. Boom, over and done with. No hard feelings.
Whether that coaching tactic played a role in Wiggins’ late-game shooting heroics is impossible to know. Maybe, maybe not. But it felt like an important step for a young head coach looking to establish certain standards and expectations with players who aren’t much younger and view him as a confidant. Saunders showed he can be friendly and firm.
“I think a common misconception when somebody comes out in support of somebody is everybody would think that’s just because they like him or it’s just because he’s good to him, he’s always nice to him,” Saunders said recently. “I’m just going to continue doing what I’ve been doing, and that is holding players accountable, in my own way, and making sure that we’re getting better every day.”