Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders argues for a call in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Denver. The Nuggets won 99-95. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

By JACE FREDERICK | jfrederick@pioneerpress.com | Pioneer Press

The job Ryan Saunders has always wanted is finally his — officially.

Saunders agreed to become the Minnesota Timberwolves full-time head coach on Monday, a source confirmed to the Pioneer Press. The Athletic was the first to report the deal.

Saunders now has a firm grip on the coaching reins to the franchise his late father, Flip, once ran.

Saunders had served as the team’s interim coach since January, taking over after Tom Thibodeau was fired. Minnesota went just 17-25 under Saunders, but the coach kept spirits high in the locker room, even as losses and, to a greater extent, injuries mounted.

Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson said Saunders did “an incredible job.”

Saunders earned the full support of players, receiving many endorsements for the full-time gig from the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, Dario Saric and more.

“It’s my wish, if it’s possible, for Ryan to stay here and be the coach,” Saric said at the end of the season. “I think he’s the best option for Minnesota, especially in the long term.”

Still, Saunders wasn’t simply given the job. New president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas was given the freedom to pick his own coach, and opened up the search to external candidates last week, interviewing multiple options at the NBA Combine in Chicago.

But, in the end, he came back to Saunders. Rosas also tabbed Brooklyn Nets director of global scouting Gianluca Pascucci as the Wolves’ new assistant general manager, according to ESPN.

Saunders, who just turned 33 last month, is far and away the youngest coach in the NBA at the moment. Despite his extensive time spent as an assistant coach in the league, some will point to his resume and say he isn’t qualified for this position — not yet, anyway.

There certainly were other candidates with more experience, but it’s possible Saunders was still simply the right fit for this job.

He’s showed a willingness, an eagerness, to incorporate analytics into his coaching decisions, to try different lineup combinations when necessary and develop every player on the roster, No. 1-15.

He collaborates with every member of the organization, from members of his coaching staff and the front office to players on his roster.

Saunders’ communication is one of his greatest strengths.

At the end of the season, players spoke to a culture Saunders was creating within the organization. One of openness and teamwork, placing the team over the individual and working every day to improve as a squad and one of enjoyment, with everyone looking forward to coming into the building every day to work.

“Ryan is just an extremely positive guy,” Tyus Jones said late in the season. “He’s someone who connects, I think, with the players, and that’s something I think everyone has noticed. … Both on and off the court, just a down-to-earth, great guy. So when he took over, I think that translated. Guys want to play for him, want to give their all, and I think he just connects with the guys really well.”

Keeping Saunders on board helps give the Wolves a certain stability they’ve lacked as a franchise for the past decade plus. Saunders has been on the Wolves’ coaching staff for the entirely of the careers of the likes of Towns, Jones and Andrew Wiggins.

It also gives Minnesota a chance to build on what players felt was a positive finish to the season, regardless of what its record said.


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