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Timberwolves ‘rallying around’ new head coach Ryan Saunders

Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach Ryan Saunders before a game last season. Saunders was set to participate in his first game as head coach Tuesday, Jan. 8, against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Ryan Saunders is taking things day by day.

The 32-year-old coach now in charge of the Minnesota Timberwolves hasn’t given much thought to the future of his team, after being named Tom Thibodeau’s replacement Sunday, Jan. 6. And he hasn’t gotten much sleep either.

“You really don’t get much sleep, getting thrown into this thing,” Saunders said Tuesday morning, Jan. 8, at the Timberwolves’ shootaround. “I’m coaching on the fly at the moment and I’m putting a lot of thoughts to paper now and really trying to organize those things.”

Saunders and Minnesota are at the halfway point of their season, sitting just outside the playoffs and two games back of the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth seed. It’s already been a whirlwind of a season thanks to Sunday’s firing of Thibodeau and the Jimmy Butler trade on Nov. 12. But the Wolves have stayed in the playoff hunt despite the chaos and the recent injuries of Derek Rose and Robert Covington, positioning themselves for a run at the postseason in the second half of the season. If Minnesota were to make that run to the playoffs, it would be the first time since the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons that it made the postseason in back-to-back years.

And Saunders, the son of the late Timberwolves coaching legend Flip Saunders, will be the leader players look to make that run happen.

“I think guys are rallying around each other, rallying around Ryan,” fourth-year point guard Tyus Jones said. “I think (Saunders) is going to be great. I think he’s prepared a long time for this moment. Everyone believes in him, everyone respects him and trusts him.

“We’re going to support him and have his back. We’re going to play extremely hard.”

Saunders said he had meetings with each player individually Monday, making clear what he hopes to see going forward and trying to get a feel about where each player stands concerning the transition. Now making his own calls and taking his own shots, Saunders hopes to bring a new energy to the team while keeping some old concepts.

“You have ideas until you’re the one ultimately making the decisions,” said Saunders, who has been on Minnesota’s coaching staff since 2014. “Those ideas all sound great, but then you have to see them play out. I’ll be careful about how much I want to implement and then I’ll be speaking to the guys, too, and trying to get their gauge on things as well.”

Saunders said he hasn’t given any thought to changing the starting lineup or rotations or even adding an assistant, instead focusing solely on making a smooth transition to head coach and making his players’ lives easier. So far, the transition hasn’t been a problem in large part due to those around him.

“We’ve got so much talent on this team,” Saunders said. “We’ve got a good group of people that make things a lot easier… My gauge is that everybody has been incredible through this. I don’t know if you can classify anybody as necessarily a ‘Thibs guy’ or ‘Chicago guy.’ Everybody has been in this organization to try and help this organization become better, and that’s everyone’s main focus.”

The transition won’t be easy, especially in the beginning, but that’s the NBA, and the Timberwolves have at least 41 games after Tuesday ahead of them. And everyone involved -- players, coaches and staff -- know that.

“It’s been a crazy, what, 36 hours? It’s been crazy,” Jones said. “But it’s a part of the business.”