Timberwolves' Ryan Saunders Is Stepping Out of His Father's Shadow
MINNEAPOLIS—When Ryan Saunders was a little boy, his mother predicted he’d follow one of two career paths: basketball coach or preacher. The first made sense: Ryan's father, Flip, was a former college guard who was an assistant at his alma mater, Minnesota, when his eldest son was born in 1986. From there, he had a two-season stint as an assistant at Tulsa before spending seven seasons as a head coach in the CBA.
In 1995, when Saunders was nine, his father got the job that would define his career: head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a struggling team that had just drafted a skinny teenager out of Chicago named Kevin Garnett.
For most of the next decade, Ryan lived the life of a gym rat. He was a natural study in what it takes to win in the NBA and function within the league’s grueling schedule. But he was quiet and reserved, with a demeanor that might’ve seemed ill-suited for the sideline or the pulpit. Saunders preferred to sit back and listen, to watch his dad, to imitate Garnett and his teammates on those talented Timberwolves teams. But without realizing it, he was preparing. Over the course of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Saunders says he learned lessons that he wouldn’t realize for years had been lessons at all. “At the end of the day, I just love playing basketball,” he says. “I love being around basketball.”
And so he played in high school and walked on to the University of Minnesota’s team in 2004. He was a guard like Flip; gradually, the quiet boy became a talker on the court, directing his offense, relaying those long-known lessons to his teammates and to himself. Basketball gave him his voice, and then it gave him his paychecks: first as a graduate manager for the Gophers, then as an assistant under his father with the Wizards, and then in the same role with the Wolves. When Flip passed away from lymphoma in 2015, his son remained, under Sam Mitchell for a season and under Tom Thibodeau for two and change.
And when Thibodeau was fired on Jan. 6, Saunders got a call: Come down to the facility. He and his family had grown close with Thibodeau, he says, so his first instinct was to feel for his former boss. But Saunders was given a surprise when he arrived at the facility—in the form of a promotion. Ryan Saunders, Flip’s kid, was Minnesota’s new interim head coach.
Since his days with the Wizards nearly a decade ago, one trait has stuck out to most who have worked alongside Saunders: his ability to listen. Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves’ All-Star center, went through his pre-draft workout in 2015 with Saunders. Towns jokes that what he recalls most from that day is the coach’s “broad shoulders”—Saunders is 6’1” and slight—and then expounds on the way he communicates. “He’s a very positive person,” Towns says, “and he has a very open ear for everything. It makes for very engaged talk from everyone.”
To hear his team tell it, Saunders listens to a remarkable extent. And really, that he listens is remarkable in and of itself, in a career more associated with red-faced yelling than thoughtful reflection. But that’s not Saunders, who at 32 years old is younger than three of his own players. He's somehow fused the role of peer with that of an authority figure. Tyus Jones, a Timberwolves point guard who was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball as a high school senior in 2014, guesses he met Saunders for the first time in 2011 or ’12. The high school phenom and baby-faced NBA assistant hit it off. Towns feels like he’s grown up with Saunders since that workout in 2015. Andrew Wiggins attended the coach’s wedding. At practices, the coach could be mistaken as an undersized point guard, guiding players through shooting drills, blending into the production in one of the few moments Flip Saunders’ son can ever blend in here in Minnesota.
Since his first game as interim coach, a win against the Thunder on Jan. 8, the Timberwolves are 5–5, and at 24–26, they’re among five teams clawing at the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed with three months of games to go. Promoting Saunders was the ultimate feel-good story in Minnesota, a city of loyal, long-suffering fans just weeks removed from discord under Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler’s trade demands. There, the Saunders name carries enormous weight, and Flip was supposed to be the coach at the helm of this ongoing rebuild before his tragic passing. He coached just one season in his second Minnesota stint, the 16-66 campaign in 2014-15, which saw the team trade for an aging Garnett and get in position to draft Towns. Since then, it’s been an up-and-down run: the Timberwolves had two consecutive players win Rookie of the Year (Wiggins and Towns in 2015 and ’16,) but it took until last year to log its first winning record since 2004-05 and snap the NBA’s longest playoff drought. Wiggins and Towns have each now played for four coaches.
Which is to say, as good as Saunders on the sidelines looks and feels, whatever memories it evokes, this has to be more than that. Nostalgia doesn’t win games, especially not for a franchise so short on it. And the team knew as much when it gave the young coach his shot, promoting him certainly not in spite of his name, but not because of it, either. The assistant who’d developed players for 10 seasons, who’d won over this Timberwolves roster, who’d displayed basketball acumen greater than his years—well, he just happened to be Flip Saunders’ son.
That first game was euphoria. Wiggins went off for 40 points in a 119-117 win over a team that’ll be a playoff shoo-in come April. Saunders called one of his father’s favorite plays—“452 twist"—in a touching and symbolic move. Towns tweeted that the win was for Flip, the coach who drafted him and for whom he feels a deep-seeded respect. It was a spark—but in the days to come, the team lost winnable games to the Mavericks and Spurs and were eviscerated at the hands of Butler and the 76ers. One lesson came quickly: No matter who’s running the sideline, this is the same roster, and Saunders knows his team needs more than just a galvanizing presence. He’s implementing changes piecemeal, feeding his players ideas and letting them germinate: fewer long twos, more three–pointers, get back down the court faster, rebound better. He’s been complimentary and encouraging to players who often felt overlooked by Thibodeau. Known in Washington and Minnesota as a player-development whiz, Saunders still brings that upbeat outlook—but he’s proven he knows how to command the locker room and make his once-quiet voice heard.
“He’s more confident, not second-guessing, speaking his mind,” Jones says. “Earlier on, he might not have thought it was his place to always speak up. Coming into this year, I saw him speak his mind confidently… and now, being the head coach, he’s done a great job communicating with everybody. There’s nonstop talking, it’s positive, pumping people up all the time. You can tell he’s got what it takes to be a great head coach in this league.”
For Saunders, getting the most of his players, this roster, is the path to a playoff berth—but those players can also be a resource, his eyes and ears on the court. He says he learned to listen from his father, that he wants to set himself apart by being analytical in his responses and decision-making. “I want to get other opinions, understanding at the end of the day, I make that decision,” Saunders says. “I live with that decision.”
Jones, who’s known Saunders the longest of any of his players, says it best: “Sometimes (coaches) don’t see it from our eyes, where we’re coming from. You can help each other grow. I think that’s really important from a coaching standpoint, to have enough (confidence) in yourself that you can say… I can get better at this and that.”
Scott Layden, who was brought on as the Timberwolves general manager in 2016, knew Ryan Saunders only tangentially before taking the job. He’d crossed paths with Flip over the years of running in the same basketball circles, and he’d worked with the younger coach more directly at the NBA’s draft combine in Chicago. Both men are the sons of coaches—Layden’s father was the Jazz's head coach in the 1970s and ‘80s—and in that, they understand one another and what it means to follow in such respected footsteps. When Layden talks about Saunders, he often comes full-circle to himself, not out of any desire for the spotlight, but because their two paths have so many commonalities.
“He is his own man, and he is his own coach,” Layden says. “One of the things he benefits from is to have been around great coaches… his whole life. Most people generally get into studying coaches maybe post-high school, or when they’re playing high school basketball. … Growing up, when his father was watching film, he’s right there, and in the gym. I only know that first-hand from my experience, but I’m sure again, our paths were very similar.”
So Layden also knows the importance of that first statement, of following in footsteps without worrying about replicating them. When Saunders talks about his father, he's talking about his best friend—which was ultimately the reason he returned home in 2014, unsure if he was ready to be back in Minnesota and under the weight of that legacy, but positive he wanted to spend more time with his dad. There’s an old framed photo of the two of them in Ryan's office—but that office is in a new facility, one Flip never inhabited. There’s room to do something new here, for the NBA’s youngest head coach, who doesn’t need to be his father’s clone, and doesn’t look like his father’s clone—until he smiles the same crooked grin.
On Jan. 18, the Timberwolves dropped a close game to the Spurs in Minneapolis. Gregg Popovich, the only NBA coach who’s still in the same job since Flip was winning with the Wolves, approached Saunders before the game to offer his congratulations. He gave the younger coach two sentences of advice: “Be who you are. Don’t try to be anybody else."
When the Timberwolves promoted the son of their beloved coach, they knew it came with an added weight. They bet on a 32-year-old who’d never had a head job before. But they didn’t bet on Flip’s son. They didn’t bet on a former Gophers guard. They bet on Ryan Saunders, independent of all that, and now he gets a chance to show the NBA who he really is.