Minnesota Timberwolves: Ryan Saunders is more than a name

Head Coach Ryan Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Head Coach Ryan Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Minnesota Timberwolves interim head coach Ryan Saunders’ greatest challenge just might be creating a name of his own.

Ryan Saunders, the recently-promoted interim head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has a challenging road ahead.

He is the youngest coach in the entire league and he’s taking over a team with playoff aspirations, and he’s stepping into a head coaching role for the first time at any level. Saunders’ most challenging task, however, may be stepping out from his father’s shadow in the very state that the name “Saunders” became a legacy.

On the Flip Side

For many Minnesotans, Flip Saunders is “Mr. Basketball.” I have often told people that nobody has had a greater impact on my passion for basketball than Flip Saunders. Flip’s first stint with the Timberwolves (1995-2005) was magical.

The franchise’s first the first winning season, first playoff berth, the first 50-win season, the first (and only) playoff series victory, and many more accomplishments can all be credited to Flip Saunders’ tenure with the Wolves.

For many years, it felt like everything he touched turned to gold. (That is, outside the seven consecutive years of one-and-done playoff appearances, which don’t look so bad in the rearview mirror…)

When Flip returned to the team in 2013, a sense of renewed joy could be felt among Timberwolves fans. “Mr. Basketball” was back and the magic was sure to follow. Sadly, that joy quickly turned to sorrow when Flip Saunders tragically passed away on Oct. 25, 2015.

A Familiar Road

Not a day goes by without Flip’s presence being felt in the state of Minnesota. Fortunately, the Saunders’ basketball legacy continues on in his son. Ryan Saunders grew up as a child of the game, being born in 1986 while his father was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota. Eighteen years later, Ryan attended the University of Minnesota. Ryan had a love for the game of basketball and played guard for the Gophers’ basketball team, same as his father had 31 years earlier. After graduating, Ryan continued in his father’s footsteps by becoming a graduate manager for the University’s basketball team.

Ryan’s career path was swift as he became an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards in 2009. The coach for the Wizards at that time: Flip Saunders. Ryan was thrown into the professional coaching fire and forced to quickly prove that he belonged.

A Legacy of His Own: Part 1

"“I think you have to prove to players no matter what — last name or no last name. Yeah, I’ve been fortunate to have a dad that who has coached and been successful in the NBA, but once you get here and get to a position’s what you do to make a name for yourself. I feel like I’ve gotten on a good path with that.” -Ryan Saunders"

In the middle of the 2011-12 season, the Washington Wizards fired head coach Flip Saunders but retained Ryan Saunders as an assistant coach. It was time for Ryan to prove that he was more than just a last name. He would be tested by his ability to develop the young stars on the team. This challenge began with the recently drafted point guard, John Wall, and continued with the team’s shooting guard drafted later that summer, Bradley Beal.

Ryan quickly gained respect as a development specialist, helping to mold the Wizards’ backcourt into a serious threat. By the end of the 2013-14 season, John Wall had blossomed into an elite player, averaging 19.3 points, 8.8 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, Bradley Beal had already become one of the league’s premiere shooters at the age of 20, averaging 17.1 points, 3.3 assists, and 3.7 rebounds per game. Ryan Saunders had successfully made a name as a sought-after developmental coach and would soon find himself in a new but familiar environment.

Home Again

In 2014, Ryan Saunders returned home to Minnesota as an assistant coach. Once again he would have the opportunity to work alongside his father, the recently appointed head coach of the team. The entire coaching staff faced the difficult challenge of developing a young roster that had been at the bottom the league for so many years.

After Flip’s tragic passing, Ryan stayed on as an assistant coach for the team that his father loved so much. Ryan Saunders continued the vision that Flip had put in place for the team. His developmental skills have been put to the test with such a young roster and he has found success. Many of the players have become very close with Ryan and now it is time for them to play with passion for him.

A Legacy of His Own: Part 2

On Jan. 6, Ryan Saunders was named Interim Head Coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves after the firing of Tom Thibodeau. His dream of following in his father’s footsteps as a head coach has become a reality.

Ryan Saunders’ path to the interim head coaching position has been very different from the majority of head coaches in the league. He does not bring with him decades of coaching experience at the high school or collegiate level. In fact, he can’t even say he is older than all the players on the team. But Ryan is a child of the game, with all the passion and tools needed to succeed as a coach.

Of course, Saunders may not keep the title of Head Coach after the interim tag is dropped this summer, but that does not mean Ryan is undeserving of the position he has now. He proved he belongs in this league during his tenure in Washington, and he has been a vital part of the development of this young Wolves roster thus far.

The legacy and presence of Flip Saunders will forever remain a vital part of the Timberwolves franchise. Meanwhile, Ryan Saunders has an amazing opportunity to honor his father’s legacy while creating one for himself during a crucial time in Wolves basketball.

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This team has plenty of talent and is anxiously awaiting the right spark to launch them into the upper echelon of NBA basketball, and I, among others, believe that Ryan is up to that challenge.