One year after Saunders' death, heartbroken players give him credit for bringing emerging elite team together

MINNEAPOLIS--It's not a matter of if the Timberwolves will rejoin the NBA's elite, but when. Whether it's this season, the next or maybe a couple of years down the road, Minnesota will get there eventually. The young core assembled over the past ...

Timberwolves Head Coach Flip Saunders guided the Minnesota Timberwolves to a 97-91 win over the Detroit Pistons at Target Center in Minneapolis in their season home opener on October 30, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
Timberwolves Head Coach Flip Saunders guided the Minnesota Timberwolves to a 97-91 win over the Detroit Pistons at Target Center in Minneapolis in their season home opener on October 30, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

MINNEAPOLIS-It's not a matter of if the Timberwolves will rejoin the NBA's elite, but when.

Whether it's this season, the next or maybe a couple of years down the road, Minnesota will get there eventually. The young core assembled over the past few seasons is too good to fail.

Five of Minnesota's top six rotational players - Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad - were members of the 2013, '14 and '15 draft classes who were either selected or acquired by Minnesota. All are above-average players in their current roles with the potential to be truly special.

And when the Timberwolves reach the goals set forth for them by Flip Saunders himself, they'll think of their lost leader.

"His (goal) was always for us to be a playoff team, and we're getting closer and closer to that," Muhammad said. "The first thing we're going to look at is coach, is Flip, when we make that goal possible. Just because if it wasn't for him, all of us couldn't be together right now and be able to share this moment."


Saunders, the architect who assembled Minnesota's talented core, isn't around to see what may be his crowning basketball achievement reach its maximum potential. He died a year ago Tuesday of cancer at age 60.

The vision Saunders had for Minnesota is now in the hands of Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves' new coach and president of basketball operations.

Thibodeau and Saunders were friends for years, and they spoke often. Saunders previously had shared his designs for the Wolves with Thibodeau, though Thibodeau had no way of knowing one day he would be in this position.

Now the job for Thibodeau and the Timberwolves is to carry out the plan laid forth by the man who was a face of the Timberwolves' organization for years and made his triumphant return in 2013 to resurrect a downtrodden franchise hampered by poor decisions and bad luck.

"He put things in motion and a lot of the guys feel very close to him," Thibodeau said. "His memory is alive and well with all of us. We want to make him proud.

"We're going to do the right things for him," Thibodeau said. "We're hoping we can do something special."

Because this team, Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said, is Saunders' legacy.

"This team is Flip's team," Dieng said. "He brings all these pieces together and he knew the future was bright. He had his own plan. But we're always going to stay hungry and play for him."


After all, Saunders is the reason they're all here.



Saunders' first draft move as Minnesota's president of basketball operations came in 2013, when he traded the ninth selection, which was used on Michigan NCAA tournament hero Trey Burke, to Utah for the Nos. 14 and 21 picks.

His first draft choice was Shabazz Muhammad, a highly-touted high school recruit the year before whose reputation was damaged at UCLA. In his only season with the Bruins, Muhammad was suspending for receiving improper benefits, was inconsistent on the court and was considered by many to be a selfish teammate.

All that might have scared off many teams on draft night.

It didn't scare Saunders, who selected Muhammad 14th overall. Muhammad remembers the call he got from Saunders that evening.

"He was just saying be ready to work," Muhammad said. "I told him I'd be ready to work, because he took a chance on me. ... That was one thing: He knew I had talent and he was really good on picking me. I kind of slipped in the draft, and he took a chance, and it's working out for me."


That work ethic Saunders requested has developed into Muhammad's on-court calling card. After a slow start to his career, Muhammad has developed into an invaluable sixth man who provides energy and a potent scoring punch in Minnesota.

"A lot of people thought different about me coming into the league," Muhammad said. "I think I proved a lot of people wrong. That's what Flip always used to tell me. I really miss him."



Gorgui Dieng was Saunders' second first-round choice in that 2013 draft, and he wasn't himself for months after Saunders' death. He couldn't sleep. There were moments when he didn't feel like playing basketball.

Saunders, Dieng said, gave him everything.

"He drafted me," Dieng said. "He always fight for me to play. He did a lot of stuff behind the scenes for me."

Particularly in Dieng's rookie year. The center averaged fewer than 14 minutes a game in his first season and didn't see the court in 20 of the Timberwolves' first 47 games.

At that time, Saunders was the president of basketball operations, the man in charge of putting the roster together. But Rick Adelman was still Minnesota's coach. Adelman decided who played and who didn't. Adelman was the one leaving Dieng on the bench.

Saunders was the one who refused to leave him behind.

Dieng was often "super tired" at the end of each practice that year, but his work was far from over. When practice was finished, Saunders would send someone to tell Dieng to meet him downstairs on the court at Lifetime Fitness.

"I used to go there and he got like a medicine ball, a heavy ball, all this stuff, and I was always super tired but he was always pushing me to go hard," Dieng said, "like, 'You've got to go, G, you've got to go. You're not playing, you've got to be in shape. I'm fighting for you now, so when it's time for you to play, I want you to prove them wrong.'

"He was always getting me ready."

Dieng finally found his shot in the latter stages of that season, starting 15 of the final 18 games. He averaged a double-double during that stretch, and recorded a 22-point, 21 rebound performance in his third career start.

Now 26, Dieng enters his fourth season as a versatile starting big man in line for a major pay increase in the near future.

"Without (Saunders), I would not be this far in this league," Dieng said. "He always put a lot of pressure on me, but a good pressure. It helped me."



Zach LaVine carried the dreaded "project" label into the 2014 NBA draft.

Maybe one day he could contribute to an NBA team, but not anytime soon. He should have stayed at UCLA for longer than one season. LaVine wasn't ready for the pro game.

Or so some said. Saunders didn't buy it.

Saunders walked around on draft day with a piece of paper with the name of the player he was going to select with the 13th pick resting in his pocket.

The name was Zach LaVine.

"He saw what everybody else didn't," LaVine said. "I had the confidence in myself, and (his confidence) meant a lot to me. He believed in me."

For good reason. LaVine has surpassed all expectations in his first two seasons. Yes, he's a two-time NBA dunk contest champion, but he's also developed into a scintillating scorer with the ability to slash to the rim and hit the three-point shot at an elite level. That combination has thrusted LaVine toward the upper echelon of the league's young talent.

"I wanted to prove people wrong for me, but for him, too," LaVine said. "He had that vision and that trust in me, and that means a lot."



Andrew Wiggins might still find it a little hard to believe.

Saunders traded Kevin Love, the cornerstone of another attempt at a Timberwolves rebuild, to Cleveland for Wiggins, who was the No. 1 choice in the 2014 draft a few months earlier, but still had yet to play an NBA game.

"That means a lot right there," Wiggins said. "That means he believed in me and believed in what I can be in this league."

Again, Saunders was proven correct. Wiggins won the 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year award, and looks to be one of the best returns in recent years netted by a team trading its best player.



It's the happiest Debbie Saunders ever saw her husband during his time in basketball.

Draft night in 2015 might be one Timberwolves fans remember for years to come.

With the No. 1 overall selection, Saunders nabbed a franchise-changing center from Kentucky, Karl-Anthony Towns.

Towns had phone issues when Saunders called him for the first time, so he couldn't really hear Saunders' words, but he could feel them.

"I just remember how excited the fans were, how excited he was," Towns said. "You could hear it in his voice, to have me here in Minnesota and how excited I truly was to be here. That excitement carries over to this day."

Towns won the Rookie of the Year award this past season, becoming the second Saunders draft acquisition to do so.

"He's the one who gave me an opportunity to play basketball here in Minnesota," Towns said, "so I'm grateful to him."

Hours after selecting Towns, Saunders completed a trade to bring Tyus Jones, a beloved Minnesota native from Apple Valley, to the Timberwolves in a trade with Cleveland.

Jones said he'll forever remember the moment Saunders told him he would be joining the Timberwolves, giving Jones a chance to compete for his hometown team.



How did Saunders take a franchise stuck for a decade in the deepest, darkest dungeon in the corner of the NBA cellar, pull it out of the rubble and direct it to a place where the light is not only visible, but shining brightly on the faces of players and fans?

How, after so many failed rebuilding attempts by his predecessors in the post-Kevin Garnett era, was Saunders able to build a core that's the envy of 90 percent of the teams in the league?

How did he do it all in just two years?

LaVine said Saunders had an eye for talent "like nobody else."

"A lot of things had to line up right, and I think we got lucky," LaVine said. "But we also got lucky that we had somebody that was a visionary like that to be able to see it and try to put the pieces together."

But it was more than just recognizing guys who could pass, dribble, shoot and defend, Debbie said.

"I feel like he had put a lot of hard work into it and a lot of thought into what players he wanted on his team, because he felt it was very important that you have good people and a good mix of personalities," Debbie said. "It's basketball skills, but for him it went a lot further than that. These guys just haven't disappointed in that way. They're good people."

Debbie still attends many games, saying the Timberwolves players her husband felt so strongly about feel like family to her, and always will. Her heart, she said, fills with joy to see them on the court.

"Fans get to see the circus of players, of course, out on the court," she said. "But, boy, when you dig down a little deeper, there's so much there, and that's just a joy to see."



Reminders of Saunders are everywhere.

His son, Ryan, remains on the Minnesota bench as an assistant coach under Thibodeau. His daughter, Rachel, is the Timberwolves' manager of team services.

LaVine keeps that piece of paper Saunders had on draft night in a drawer, along with the Timberwolves coin Saunders gave to each member of the organization. Towns still wears his Flip wristband. Jones has a framed photo of he and Saunders hanging in his living room.

LaVine said the players still think about Saunders "all the time."

"Flip had a bigger-than-life personality," said Ted Johnson, the Timberwolves and Lynx chief strategy and development officer and senior vice president. "You don't easily forget a person like that."

There's a framed portrait of Saunders currently hanging in the Timberwolves' offices. Plans are in place to build a remembrance of Saunders - to honor who he was and what he meant to the Timberwolves - in what will be part of a new trophy case, Johnson said.

The entire Mayo Clinic practice facility, which houses the Timberwolves and Lynx and was called "the gold standard" by NBA commissioner Adam Silver last summer, is in itself a monument of sorts to Saunders. He had input at nearly every step of the facility's design, from the broad ideas of a layout that best suits the players to the minute details involving the finishes, tiles, countertops and carpet.

Many professional practice facilities are in the middle of nowhere, so as to remove as many distractions as possible. The Mayo Clinic facility is in the heart of Minneapolis. There are windows all around the practice facility, including those visible from the public lobby.

"(Saunders) was a big believer in using this training center as a way to connect us to our fans," Johnson said, "and sort of become the epicenter of Minnesota basketball."

Saunders reached out to the Minnesota basketball community whenever possible. He was involved in the Timberwolves & Lynx Basketball Academy and the organization's youth clinics, and during training camp he often hosted a clinic for high school coaches.

"He really believed that the (Timberwolves) were a leader in Minnesota basketball," Johnson said, "and it had a role to play. He wanted this training center to reflect that."

To continue Saunders' commitment to the community, his family started the Flip Saunders Legacy fund, which is "solely devoted to aiding and supporting deserving individuals or groups and continue the positive impact of the life of coach Flip Saunders."



Despite all of his contributions in other areas, Saunders will be best known by many for what he left behind - a supremely skilled basketball team with endless possibilities.

For the first time in a long time, there's a reason to be excited about the Timberwolves.

"What happened to Flip was so tragic. What's amazing is that this team is his legacy," ESPN's Brian Windhorst said. "As terrible as what happened to him was ... when he left, he left this incredible gift."

A lasting one Minnesota basketball fans can enjoy for years to come. Just as Saunders planned.

"It hasn't been an easy road. It never is when you're building something," Debbie said. "I know that Flip worked very hard at that. The two full seasons that he was back here, to him it meant more than just putting a basketball team together. ... I think for him personally, it was equally important to give back to the community that's been so good to us."

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