Flip Saunders, Kevin Garnett, and the New Minnesota Youth Movement

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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.

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. Dave says:

    I still have a lot of hope for LaVine. He shouldn’t be playing so much right now, and he’s playing out of postion. His confidence is still high, though. Bennett is the guy that seems to be a head case. As the article implies, he has to start playing to win instead of playing not to lose.

  2. Skune says:

    I worry that Flip Saunders might be hindering the development of his players by teaching them a dated style of basketball.

    On offense, many of the play-sets the Wolves are designed to get players open for mid-range jumpers or create pick and roll situations where the ball handler comes off the screen running parallel to the hoop rather than towards it. I know that Flip has mentioned that he’s tossed out most of the playbook with Rubio injured, but the plays they do seem to run seem contrary so sound basketball principles and philosophy. Flip has also made his team “earn the right” to take 3pointers, which I actually would love if it didn’t have the adverse consequences of forcing his players to take long 2pters instead. I think all coaches would prefer their players attack the rim for layups and dunks first, but if you can’t get shots at the rim- the three point line is the place to go. While none of the Wolves players are great behind the arc, simple math shows that unless they are able to hit their 50% or more of their mid-range shots, they are better off making only 33% of their shots from behind the arc (I’m looking at you Thad, Bennett, LaVine). I think teaching the young Wolves incorrectly what a good shot and a bad shot look like, will stunt their growth. This has certainly appeared in the boxscore as the Wolves are bottom 5 in the league in TS%, and AdjustedFG%.

    On defense, there seems like a similar apathy from Flip on teaching his guys to close out hard on 3 point shooters, help and recover, and force dribble-drives to the sideline and baseline and away from the middle of the floor. Advanced stats show that the most efficient shots on the floor are at the rim, behind the arc, and at the free-throw line and the Wolves have been abominable at taking away all three areas. Perhaps the most innovative thing they’ve done defensively was the couple games where they played “switch everything” because their lineups featured 5 guys between 6’5 and 6’8 so it was it bit of “everything is a mismatch, but nothing is a mismatch” type situation and kept opposing ball-handlers moving sideways rather than letting them turn the corner towards the hoop. I don’t think this teaches great individual defense in the long run, but it was effective – and boy could we use anything that is effective right now.

  3. farnorth says:

    Well I have to admit that I have officially crossed over to the dark side. I would have been content with a 30ish win season that showed promise as the close losses mounted and the playoffs slowly crept out of reach. But 5-31? Well, that’s an entirely different animal.

    I am now counting ping pong balls and looking at draft position. Cheering for moral victories and and L’s while following Duke basketball. 0 for, for Okafor is my new motto.

    It’s official… I have crossed over..

  4. Fan says:

    It’s tough to criticize Flip for their half court play. Too many rookie and sophomore there without a healthy pure PG to run. The key is how Saunders construct this team and expect this team look like in the future 2 – 3 years. If he want to make it like Spurs, doing picks all over the court, pass the ball around for a best FG chance in half court, it would be a surprise to me that it can be done. I saw much highlight about LaVine before season, but it’s rare to see that he attack the basket in a half court game. What I want to say is, as the young players still have lots to learn, how to prioritize is the key. Frankly now the team style right now is not a good environment. Run an offense for LaVine, make a good shot selection for Bennett, Learn a good attitude for Wiggins, all need long time process. It would make the players frustrate if they are pulled when they cannot do it well, which is obviously not easy to do it well. Instead for a young team, they should be energetic, athletic. I really think coach the team to be the Suns, and then hopefully be the Warriors, is a shorter route than coach the team be the Spurs.

  5. Pyrrol says:

    Skune, good comments! I get the personnel doesn’t allow us to take a Portland level amount of threes. And I like that, I find teams that take too many threes pretty boring. You won’t find Golden State, Portland, Phoenix or Houston among my favorite teams now. At the same time, we have some guys who can hit some threes and to compete at all we need to take more. Shabazz is working on his shot and has started hitting some. Wiggins can hit threes. LaVine, with some better shot selection and plays that allow him to get set before he puts a shot up could knock some 3’s down… It’s just weird to take the tiny amount we are so far. Everyone is confused about it.

    On D, I just have no idea what Flip is doing, and what he’s trying to do to get us better now that it is clear his original ideas aren’t working. He likes to blame effort of the players. That’s not flying anymore. Is he just this bad at figuring out how to compete on D? Is he this bad of a teacher? I’m confused and grossed out. I think he needs to try something… that weird switch thing was the last time we looked like we defended. Yeah, it was a gimmick, but it was something and an acknowledgement that what is happening now isn’t working.

    As far as KG-Wiggins thing… Flip is lucky to coach both, they are outstanding talents. Very different players. Garnnet was always a fiery guy and he’s 7 feet of wirey D presence. Wiggins is calm, a bit cautious, but competitive. He’s probably smarter than KG. He’s going to be a better scorer than KG, I think, who can score in many more ways. He should also be a great defender, but not an anchor like KG–more of a stopper you sick on a good player. But I doubt KG did everything as a rookie that Flip asked him to do. Rookies mess up. Fast forward to now: Flip talks encouragingly in ‘miced’ clips but his attitude is punitive. It’s a bad cycle. Clearly, both circumstances and coaching have left the young guys confused and hesitant. Threatening minutes over mistakes only makes them more hesitant. It looks like the guys are playing to keep their minutes not to win. Even a ‘head case’ like Bennett wants to listen and execute well enough to compete on the floor, but he is both overly cautious, looking over at Flip after mistakes, and still making the same mistakes. He’s not an idiot. This just doesn’t add up. LaVine does dumb things all the time and Flip can’t punish him, because he’s absolutely needed at point. All the same, though his confidence seems high, we see no progress as far as cutting down on mistakes with LaVine despite the playing time and leash to figure it out. Why? I also pointed out a while ago that the personal growth of guys like Shabazz and Wiggins has only resulted in better numbers for them, not in wins or more close games. I don’t know what this all means, but it doesn’t reflect well on Flip’s coaching, to me. And he doesn’t get an out because he coached KG, and he ended up being a hall of fame player. I hope things get better.

    Side note: Does anyone else call Wiggins Inspector Gadget?

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