Throughout the season, Flip Saunders has told stories to players and media about his early years with the Timberwolves, specifically his memories developing a young, untapped 19-year-old named Kevin Garnett.
In some cases, telling such stories could be seen as pointless. There’s no way he told these stories to his title-contending Detroit Pistons squads, filled with veterans and guys who grew up playing against KG, and had already gone through the growing pains. One can only imagine what Rasheed Wallace would have thought if Saunders was reminiscing about a guy he was picked ahead of in 1995.
But this year’s Timberwolves team needs to hear these tales. Currently, the Wolves start one teenager, and have had another in and out of the starting lineup.The average age of their two leading scorers is 20 years old. They have 3 rookies on the active roster, and are at a point where guys in the range of 24-27 years old classifies you as a “seasoned veteran”.
Yes, Saunders needs to tell stories to Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, and Anthony Bennett, not just because they’re young, and not just because they’re developing. It’s also because of the way Kevin Garnett played, even when he was 19.
“At one time, people thought I wasn’t tough enough on Garnett. I couldn’t be tough on him because he was doing everything I asked him to do,” Saunders said after Saturday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs. “He rarely made any mistakes, he played hard, and because of how he was playing, if he kept playing like that, I thought he would be great.”
Of the Timberwolves’ 15-man roster, 5 of them are 21 or younger. Of course, Saunders treats each player differently and, thus, handles the way he approaches their development differently. The one common theme you will find: if a mistake is made too often, he won’t hesitate to pull you from the game.
“You still have to stay involved in the concept,” Zach LaVine said after a December loss to Indiana. “Coach will still pull me, it doesn’t matter to him. You still have to play the right way.”
LaVine’s situation has been arguably the toughest for Flip. With an injury to Ricky Rubio, and scattered injuries to Mo Williams, Saunders has been forced to play LaVine as a full-time point guard. There are a few problems with this. For starters, LaVine is at his best when he’s playing off the ball. He’s a shooting guard. Despite the limited sample space, he’s shown much more comfort playing off the ball, shooting off the catch, and playing like a shooting guard.
The other issue has to do with the simple fact that he’s playing at all. It’s never really been said, but it was more or less assumed that LaVine would spend much of this season learning behind the veterans. On the bench, mostly.There was even some speculation about a trip or two to the D League. Due to injuries, Timberwolves management never got that opportunity (though, the opportunity is still there for second round pick Glen Robinson III, who has only played in a couple late-game blowout situations this year).
In fact, Flip hasn’t been able to do that much at all with LaVine, especially when Mo Williams was hurt and Corey (Point) Brewer (or (point) Hummel) was implemented as the backup. Overall, he’s playing much more than he was expected to do right away, and he’s doing the best he can.
Through all this he’s never lost his confidence, something that can’t necessarily be said for Anthony Bennett. Bennett started the season thinner, faster, and with a noticeably added sense of confidence in his game. To start the season, his play reflected that, but it hasn’t lasted.
As the season has pressed on, Bennett has lost his confidence. His jumper selection is more or less limited to long two-pointers. Lots of Wolves do that, but Bennett’s issue is that he isn’t making them. Grantland’s Zach Lowe (as usual) put it best.
A full 54 percent of Bennett’s shots have been long 2-point jumpers. Even Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge think that’s excessive. Bennett has canned just 37 percent of those upchucks, not nearly enough to justify the volume.
When Bennett makes mistakes, Saunders takes him out. As the substitutions have become more frequent, Bennett has developed a bad habit. Every missed shot, turnover, or blown defensive assignment, odds are he’s looking over at the sideline to see if he’s about to get pulled. Instead of playing to help his team, his mind has him playing to avoid getting pulled.
Shabazz Muhammad worked out with Bennett over the summer, also lost a relatively substantial amount of weight, and came into the season with new-found confidence. He still makes a great deal of mistakes. But Muhammad’s endless motor has forced Saunders to keep him in games. Combine that with his intact high confidence, Shabazz has turned into one of the NBA’s most improved players halfway through the season.
“My toughness on [the young guys] has to do with repeated mental mistakes,” Saunders said. “I’m tougher at times on Shabazz, but I play Shabazz. At times, he makes mental mistakes, but he plays so hard. I play guys that play hard.”
Up until he got to UCLA, Muhammad had always been far and away the best player on his team. Getting to the NBA was a bit of a wake up call for him, especially when he found himself out of the rotation for most of his rookie year. Still, his mindset hasn’t wavered, and his attitude has remained positive.
“It’s all about getting an opportunity in this league,” Muhammad said. “Once I get my opportunity I’m really going to take advantage of it.”
Muhammad has taken that opportunity and
run sprinted with it.
Despite all this, the guy that sparks the most Kevin Garnett stories over the past 4 months has been Andrew Wiggins. The funny thing, though, is Wiggins couldn’t be less like Garnett in terms of personality. This video from Minnesota’s trip to Mexico is a good look at their young relationship.
Garnett is and was a rare talent, and it’s completely unfair to directly compare him to Wiggins. But their ceilings are so similarly insane, it’s hard to not consider it. Obviously, Saunders sees it too, otherwise he wouldn’t make mention of how he treated Garnett as often as he does, especially as it pertains to the NBA’s leading scorer among rookies.
Sure, Kevin Garnett almost definitely had his downfalls when he was 19, but it’s safe to assume Saunders never had to tell KG to “keep coming hard”. That was never a criticism of Garnett, but it is of Wiggins.
Early on, Wiggins would go on long stretches where you wouldn’t even notice him on the floor. Then, suddenly, he’d look like the superstar everyone was saying he’d become back in high school. For whatever reason, this happened a lot in the 3rd quarter in his first few NBA weeks. When Wiggins would “float”, as Saunders would call it, he’d get pulled.
The last month and a half, Wiggins has played harder. As a result, he’s gotten more minutes. Through all that, he’s scoring more, and finding new ways to score. Slowly, he’s become a legitimate offensive threat, and is already looking like a lock to make the All Rookie First Team, and maybe more. Probably more.
It’s early, but what Flip is doing for Wiggins seems to be working. At the very least, Wiggins has been buying in Flip’s message.
“This season has been a grind, really a learning experience,” Wiggins said in late December. “It’s getting better. Believing in the process. You just have to set goals and expectations that you want to follow and try to achieve it.”
Wiggins is right, too. It is getting better. As the season has progressed, he has gotten better. He isn’t “floating” the same way he did at the beginning of the season. His motor has been revving up more and more. Is it because of how Saunders has worked his minutes? It would be unfair to Wiggins’ ridiculous talent to give all the credit to his coach, but it would probably be unfair to shun Flip completely in this case.
Things have worked out for guys like Wiggins and Muhammad, and even LaVine to a certain extent. But there are still guys like Anthony Bennett, who hasn’t quite caught onto the NBA at any capacity yet, and certainly not into Saunders’ ideal plans for him.
“I could say it’s ‘being tough’, but I can also say it’s coaching,” Saunders said. “Players have to understand when they’re doing something wrong, that they know what they’re doing wrong. We don’t want them to keep on doing that. When I’m tough on certain players, it’s [often] because of a repeated mistake.”
Saunders will never coach a guy like Kevin Garnett again. Rookies almost never come in and know exactly what to do, especially in the complimentary manner in which Saunders has described his best success story. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s going to take what he did with KG and do the exact same thing all over again.
When he got KG, Flip the coach was a rookie himself. He’s seen and coached several rookies since then. Some have played their best basketball under Saunders, others have fallen through the cracks. In some cases, part of the blame probably belongs on Flip’s shoulders, other times the player was probably doomed regardless.
No matter how this batch of Wolves youngsters turn out long-term, bad or good, Saunders’ impact will be there. At the same time, bad or good, a coach can only do so much.