Saunders' rapid rise is no surprise to those who know him best
Spencer Tollackson remembers being AAU teammates with Ryan Saunders during their teenage years.
Sometimes, Tollackson would play alongside Saunders. Other times, during practice, he would be coached by him. As early as 15 or 16 years old, Saunders couldn’t help but instruct.
“Ryan would just take over and start coaching,” recalled Tollackson a former Gophers center and current radio analyst for the men’s basketball team. “Everybody knew that he was destined to be a head coach.”
That it happened this early -- at just 32 years old -- for his hometown Minnesota Timberwolves, no less, the NBA team his father coached and ran, surprised most.
But those who knows Saunders believe that, even at such a young age, the coach is ready to seize the moment.
Said former Gophers coach Tubby Smith: “I don’t think anyone would be more deserving of this opportunity than Ryan.”
Saunders admits he was preparing for this type of opportunity, sure, but he was not aiming for it. Flip always taught Ryan to do the work, and everything else would take care of itself. Have long-term goals, but “try to do things the right way in terms of taking steps day by day, and I think day by day just getting better.”
It’s the same approach former Wayzata basketball coach Phil Ward saw Saunders take with his on-court improvement.
“He wasn’t one of those guys who expected that ‘(because) I shot a lot of shots today, I’m going to be a great shooter tomorrow,’ ” Ward said. “He understood everything was a process and he never got frustrated if he didn’t improve as fast as he’d like or playing time wasn’t as much as he wanted, those kinds of things. He simply charted out a plan and then stuck with it with an idea and belief that he was going to maximize whatever he was going to get by doing it this way.”
By the end of his high school career, Ward said Saunders was an all-conference guard. Saunders takes the same approach to his coaching career. Each experience helps him improve within his profession.
“I’m not the coach I want to be, and I don’t think anybody in their current state is where they want to be,” Saunders said. “You’re always looking to get better.”
Saunders walked on at the University of Minnesota. He barely ever played.
Yet Smith -- now the head coach at High Point -- who coached Saunders at the end of the guard’s college career, said Saunders was “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached.” Tollackson said Saunders was the guy who was the first one in the gym and the last one out.
“You couldn’t find a harder worker,” Smith said. “He was an overachiever. That’s what he did.”
Upon the completion of his athletic career, Saunders became a graduate assistant under Smith, who said Saunders consistently put in hours doing stats and breaking down film. Smith said Saunders was the first one who used new software to draw up new plays on an iPad. Saunders wasn’t your typical grad assistant.
“He understood what coaching was all about, the sacrifices, the work ethic, the time that you have to put in,” Smith said. “He was ahead of the curve (with the technology), because at the time, I’m a little old school, I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ He was an innovator in that area; he really was. He got involved with that aspect of that game and started using that to help other coaches and it was wonderful. He helped us out a lot. He’d bring plays to us, it was excellent.”
Saunders’ workload has only increased this week. He hasn’t gotten much sleep since taking over as Wolves coach Sunday night, instead pouring himself into his players and game preparation.
“Just the way he approaches everything in his life, it’s always calculated from a work ethic and try to outwork anybody that stands in his way perspective,” Tollackson said. “I certainly admire that about him. It’s just his relentless pursuit to try to be the best that he can be but also live up to some of the standards that were put on him as a young kid being Flip Saunders’ son to try to get to that next level always.”
Wolves general manager Scott Layden is excited to see what Saunders can do with his opportunity as the team’s interim bench boss. Layden said Saunders is talented, enthusiastic and “has been preparing for this his whole life.”
This is the kid who grew up with an NBA coach for a father in Flip. Ryan would fall asleep on the couch while watching film late into the night with his dad. Tollackson said Ryan could have run an NBA practice by the time he was 12.
“I grew up in the business,” Saunders said. “I know how this stuff goes.”
When he was a freshman in college, Saunders was an assistant coach for an AAU team featuring the likes of Cole Aldrich and Jon Leuer.
“I knew (he’d be a head coach) from when I was in high school,” said Aldrich, a former Timberwolves center who played under Saunders in AAU and the NBA. “Because you could just tell he was a guy that was super serious about it.”
Tollackson points out not many people know what they want to do when they’re 12 years old, and then go out and do it within the next 20 years.
“He was born into it, so he knew from the days of following his dad around and going to all the different things and watching his dad in this business,” Smith said. “It’s like anything else, if you’re going to be good at something, the sooner you can get started in it, the better you’re going to be. That’s why he’s so talented. That’s what I was so impressed with, was just his knowledge of the game at such an early age.”
‘Attitude of gratitude’
Aldrich thinks Saunders is a good NBA coach for the same reasons he thought he was a good AAU coach.
“Always in a great mood, always ready to compete,” Aldrich said. “And if you needed an ear, he’d be there to hear you talk.”
Tollackson said Saunders is always transparent and honest. He’ll tell it like it is, which is all Tollackson said you can ask for out of a coach, or a friend.
Tyus Jones said Saunders “genuinely cares.”
That’s what he felt was Saunders’ best attribute as an assistant coach, one that figures to translate to his new role.
“He’s just such a caring guy, he respects everyone,” Jones said. “He’s so positive each and every day. A positive outlook about everything. He always came to work looking at it like how could he help?”
Saunders believes staying even keel to be important in life in general. Even at his age, he’s already been through so much.
Tollackson was Saunders’ college roommate when Flip was fired as Timberwolves coach. The next season, Flip took the head coaching job in Detroit, pulling him away from his wife and family.
While his father was away, Ryan bypassed weekends on campus to go home to spend time with his mother and sisters.
“He’s a great kid, a great young man,” Smith said. “Everyone that knows Ryan knows how special he is. He’s such a sincere, considerate, committed person.”
No, Saunders admitted he’s not always going to hold it together — he suggested he might have shed a few tears while alone in the moments after Minnesota’s dramatic win over the Thunder in his NBA head-coaching debut — but he’s going to try. Losses hurt, but he wants to stay positive and composed, much like he did throughout Tuesday’s crazy contest. That matters, Aldrich said.
“You go on win streaks; you go on losing streaks. I call it the roller coaster of professional sports, because you’re playing well, you’re not playing well, you’re playing, you’re not playing, it’s just this up and down,” Aldrich said. “You can make it what you want to. Some people really have a hard time getting through that, because it’s stressful; it’s emotional. But Ryan kind of came in and he always had that even keel.”
Ward was a head coach for more than 35 years. It’s a job he said can wear you down. But Saunders, he said, has “a great ability to not get frustrated.” Rather, Ward said his former player maintains “a calm belief in what he’s trying to do.”
If Smith would give Saunders one piece of advice, it would be to focus on the positives, though he knows that likely won’t be a problem for his former player.
Smith used to send Saunders out to recruit, because if someone knew how to share the message of the program and the university in a positive light, it was Saunders. Saunders has returned to Wayzata to give countless speeches to students and basketball players.
“He’s really good at it,” Ward said. “He not only would sell himself, but he would see the Timberwolves organization at as good a rate as anyone could do. He just is really enjoyable.”
Aldrich thoroughly enjoyed watching Saunders coach on television Tuesday. He could see the excitement on Saunders’ face throughout.
“It was really fun to see him take the steering wheel, so to speak,” Aldrich said. “Let those guys go and play, let them make mistakes and let them learn from those mistakes.”
Ward said Saunders is a unifier, perhaps the best trait a coach can possess.
“He’s such a sincere, considerate, committed person,” Smith said. “He always has that great attitude, that attitude of gratitude, and I think that’s what’s going to make him great.”