Amid uncertainty, Wolves’ Saunders keeps working
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. -- More than a hundred kids were running around the YMCA gym Wednesday morning, yelling and wildly firing shots at random basketball hoops.
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. - More than a hundred kids were running around the YMCA gym Wednesday morning, yelling and wildly firing shots at random basketball hoops.
Then Ryan Saunders grabbed a microphone, the Timberwolves clinic was underway and everything was in order. When the Wolves assistant coach said to jump, the kids jumped. When Saunders said to clap, they clapped. When he said to be quiet, the gym fell silent.
Saunders was in total control, providing instruction while making kids feel comfortable by inducing laughs and taking the time to go high-five anyone who might have struggled with a particular drill.
“I’ve done a ton of these,” said Saunders, who is the Wolves’ lone coach on the three-stop Timberwolves caravan along with players Shabazz Muhammad and Cole Aldrich. “This was always something my dad was good at. He passed that on a little bit to me.”
Saunders spent the majority of the hour-long clinic providing on-court lessons focusing on ball handling and defensive stances and off-court lessons such as the importance of schoolwork. But he slipped a few jokes in throughout, often aimed at his players.
There was a shooting competition that had kids shooting from spots marked by dollar bills crumpled up on the floor. If the kids made the shot, the money was theirs.
Saunders used Aldrich and Muhammad to demonstrate the drill. Aldrich made a shot in the lane and celebrated. But Saunders denied him the dough.
“You have enough already,” Saunders said to Aldrich, who signed a three-year, $22-million contract this summer.
Then Saunders set down another bill on the right block and looked at Muhammad.
“Can you make this?” Saunders asked. “It’s from the right side.”
The comment was a jab at Muhammad, a lefty whose shot chart indicates a strong favoritism for the left side of the floor. All Muhammad could do in response was smile.
“He’s just great,” Muhammad said of Saunders. “He works hard working us out and he gets us better. He’s a great guy. He’s a player’s coach, and that’s something we need around our program.”
Saunders’ position on the staff appeared to be in limbo when the Wolves relieved interim coach Sam Mitchell of his duties at the end of the season and hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach and president of basketball operations in April. The Wolves announced in May that many members of the front office and assistant coach Sidney Lowe would not be retained. Yet Saunders is still around.
Saunders said he treated that time of uncertainly like he treats anything in life.
“You just take things day by day and do the best you can with them and you do something until somebody tells you you don’t do it anymore,” Saunders said. “So that’s my approach. ... I grew up in this business, I understand how things go.”
Saunders continues to aid in the development of Minnesota’s young talent, even coaching the Wolves’ Summer League team that finished second in Las Vegas in July. Saunders said he is “very thankful” to be a part of the building process in Minnesota.
“Minnesota is home for me,” he said, “and there’s always something special (here).”