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New Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders has prepared his whole life for this opportunity

Nov 25, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach Ryan Saunders against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Ariz., on Nov. 25, 2016. Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- After running his first practice as the Timberwolves’ interim head coach Monday, Jan. 7, Ryan Saunders was shepherded to the front of a team backdrop to field countless questions from a herd of reporters.

Welcome to the life of an NBA head coach.

“Definitely didn’t expect to be standing here,” Saunders said.

This is where Saunders has always wanted to be, he just didn’t suppose this opportunity would come now, or via this avenue. Not on the heels of Tom Thibodeau’s firing, not at the midway point of an NBA season for a team contending for a playoff spot. Not at the ripe age of 32 years old.

Still, this is where he wants to be. The Gophers’ alum and son of the late, legendary Wolves coach and executive Flip Saunders, Ryan was, as former Timberwolves center Cole Aldrich put it, “groomed to be a head coach his whole life.”

He knows basketball inside and out. When Aldrich was in high school, it was Saunders — then a student-athlete at the University of Minnesota — coaching Aldrich’s AAU team. Saunders has spent the past 10 years as an NBA assistant coach, and the past 32 years learning the game.

When Flip Saunders would watch film at home until 3 a.m., his son would be right there by his side on the couch.

“Just because I wanted hang out, and I’d fall asleep there,” Saunders said. “So I know how these things go. I know it’s a tough life, so I never really looked at it necessarily as age. I looked at it as I’ve been in this, these are just experiences helping me grow to eventually be the coach that I want to be.”

He knows he’s not there yet. He wouldn’t even say he’s for sure ready for this opportunity. Saunders said you can’t know that until you’re in a given situation.

“I’m somebody who tries to just take things day by day,” Saunders said. “I’ve learned that, and I think that’s important, just with a mindset of daily improvement, and that goes for players, but that also goes for myself, and I look forward to the challenge, and the internal challenge, to get better.”

Saunders noted he has “great support.” Team owner Glen Taylor said in looking at the Wolves’ staff, the belief is Saunders “was the most qualified person to take over and probably would have the brightest future with us.” He hopes the Wolves perform well enough under Saunders that he earns the full-time job.

“I’m excited to see what he’ll do,” general manager Scott Layden said, “because he’s a very enthusiastic coach, and he’s a very good communicator. And so I’m excited to see where we are moving forward.”

Saunders also has support from the very players he’s leading. For guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones and Andrew Wiggins, Saunders is the only coach who has been in Minnesota for the entirety of their careers.

Saunders said this opportunity in Minnesota is “special for obvious reasons.” No. 1, he’s the head coach of the same franchise his dad ran for years.

But, also, he said it’s special to get a chance to coach this group of guys that he knows so well.

Wiggins and Jones attended Saunders’ wedding. Towns said he and Saunders have a “close relationship.” You don’t often see player-coach relationships of that strength in the pro ranks.

Towns believes Saunders will “implement more of the new-school NBA” into the Wolves’ game plan, potentially including a faster pace. Towns said Saunders is Minnesota’s “new captain,” and the Wolves are ready to follow him.

“I trust him. I have a good relationship with him,” Wiggins said. “I feel like we’re all in a special situation. A blessed situation. I think it’ll be positive, I think it’ll be good for us.”

Saunders sees those established bonds as a positive. Because, in his mind, communication matters. That’s where Aldrich thinks there might have been a disconnect between players and Thibodeau, who didn’t always take the time to communicate his thoughts and plans with players.

Saunders said he’s looking forward to growing his communication with players every day.

“Because I really do think if you can get guys to really listen and really be in touch with you, then they’ll be willing to do more for you out on that court,” Saunders said.

When Saunders arrived at home late Sunday night, there were two people waiting for him — his wife, and his mom, Debbie. All mom wanted was a hug from her son before returning home. Debbie has attended countless games — even in the three years since Flip’s passing — watching from a few rows behind the bench. Now, she’ll do so with her son leading the charge.

“Yeah, she’s proud,” Ryan said. “It’s been obviously a difficult time in terms of three years, for the family, losing my father. So getting her to smile a little more is a good thing.”

As for his father, Saunders knows there are plenty of life lessons he garnered from Flip that he will take into this opportunity.

As for what Flip would say to him today, Ryan joked one thing would be to keep his answers to the press short. And the other?

“He’d tell me that he was proud of me,” Ryan said. “He knew this was a goal, eventually. Maybe he didn’t think it would happen this soon or in this unfortunate circumstance, but he’d tell me he’s proud of me.”

Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at rjeffries@forumcomm.com and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.

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