The Minnesota Timberwolves announced Tuesday morning that Ryan Saunders has been hired on as an assistant coach. If the name sounds familiar to Wolves fans, it should. Ryan played four years at the University of Minnesota and was an assistant coach there under Tubby Smith as well. He was an assistant coach and scout with the Washington Wizards the last five seasons. He’s also minority owner/president of basketball operations/head coach Flip Saunders’ son.
Here is part of the statement from the Wolves on the matter, which includes that David Adelman will remain on the coaching staff:
The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced Ryan Saunders as an assistant coach, joining David Adelman, Sidney Lowe and Sam Mitchell on head coach Flip Saunders’ staff. Per team policy, terms of the deal were not announced.
“Ryan brings a unique skill set of player development, analytics and team preparation to our team,” said general manager Milt Newton. “He played a key role in the development of Washington’s rising stars John Wall and Bradley Beal, and he served as the primary scout last season as the Wizards won their first playoff series since 2004-05. His ability to develop young talent, as well as his statistical analysis and game preparation techniques, will be an extremely valuable addition to our team.”
On the surface, this hiring looks and feels very nepotistic. This organization is known for going with the familiar rather than the outside help on most occasions, and bringing in the coach’s son to be on the coaching staff certainly goes with the familiar. However, this is not your typical nepotistic hiring in the NBA.
I asked around the league, both with people who have covered the Washington Wizards’ organization and with those relatively close to the situation. The resounding sentiment regarding Ryan Saunders is he’s legitimately qualified to be given this position. Milt Newton’s comments about his work with John Wall and Bradley Beal shouldn’t be overlooked. He legitimately helped the most dynamic, young backcourt in the league get better by all accounts. The biggest thing he helped with Beal and Wall was their ball-handling. Multiple “sources” (that sounds so official!) told me John Wall had never really worked on his dribbling before he got to the NBA. A lot of what he did was based on feeling and instincts when he played in high school, AAU, and college.
(First of all, think about how absurdly talented Wall is if this is indeed true. Wall has always been a phenomenal dribbler and he’s able to be that way moving at high speeds. Secondly, you can see a big drop in Wall’s turnover rate from season 1 and 2 to seasons 3 and 4. He went from 18.6% to 19.2% to 15.3% to 16.3% in turnover rate. Some of that will be getting more familiar with the league, but it’s also an improvement in ball handling. His first season saw 32.9% of his turnovers coming from losing the ball. Every season after that, the number of “lost ball turnovers” has been around 25%.)
The consensus on Ryan Saunders also seems to be the Wizards’ commitment to keeping him around for two years following Flip’s removal from the organization speaks volumes about his potential value. Remember Randy Wittman? Ryan helped Wittman look competent, providing lineup analysis from behind the bench on many occasions. The Wizards made the second round of the playoffs with Wittman as their coach. Some of that is the East. Some of that is the Wizards have a really good core. Some of that is the help of the assistant staff. And some of that help from the assistant staff is Saunders’ doing.
That analytical background and understanding could be huge for the future of this franchise. Here’s the final paragraph from the Wolves’ statement:
As well as his coaching experience, Saunders brings an analytical background to the Wolves coaching staff. He is the co-founder of an in-game analytical program, Gametime Concepts, which focuses on in-game analysis and statistical probabilities. Gametime Concepts is used by a number of NBA and NCAA teams.
I don’t know that the Wolves have been lacking in analytics, per se, but I also wouldn’t say it’s been a huge part of the last five years or so. Perhaps Saunders can help turn that around with his understanding, appreciation, and relative innovation of the world of basketball analytics. It’s not that decisions should be based solely on basketball analytics; it’s just that you should acquire as much information as you can and parse through it to find solutions to problems. It should involve a balance of the eye test, basketball instinct, and information analytics can provide. I’m guessing Ryan will have his dad’s ear plenty of times through the season and can help move the team into the next generation of basketball decision-making — a place many teams are already quite successful in.
Is this move nepotism by the Wolves? Of course, it is. That just doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative connotation. Ryan is well respected in his previous place of employment and he’s a welcome addition to a coaching staff that needs as much help as they can get.