Many armchair basketball fans like to fantasize that they have the know-how necessary to coach an NBA. The reality, however, is that coaching is hard — really hard. It takes years to develop the skills needed to survive in the competitive and stressful atmosphere of the NBA. As a result, the average NBA coach age has been over 50 for much of recent history.
Yet a few young coaches have managed to succeed in the league — for instance the Boston Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens, and the Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton. Yet the youngest coach currently in the NBA is the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ryan Saunders. Let’s investigate Saunders’ path to become a head coach, and see how well he’s fared so far.
Ryan Saunders’ legacy with the Timberwolves
Ryan Saunders is the son of a much-beloved figure in the world of Minnesota basketball: Flip Saunders. Saunders Sr. coached the Timberwolves for 10 years between 1995 and 2005. He then spent three seasons each coaching the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, before returning to the Timberwolves in 2014.
Over the course of his coaching career, Saunders Sr. racked up a 654-592 record. On his return to the Timberwolves franchise, he also took over the President of Basketball Operations. Sadly, after just a single season, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He passed away a short time later, leaving Timberwolves fans with heavy hearts.
Sam Mitchell coached the Timberwolves during the 2015-2016 season. Then, starting in 2016-2017, the team brought in defensive-minded veteran coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau failed to turn the team around, and in January 2019 the Timberwolves fired him.
Ryan Saunders was named the interim coach. During the off-season, Saunders Jr. was signed to a multi-year coaching extension.
Ryan Saunders’ background in basketball
Ryan Saunders may have grown up in a basketball-obsessed household, but that wasn’t his only exposure to the game. To begin with, Saunders played basketball growing up. He also played two seasons of basketball for the University of Minnesota as a walk-on. That said, Saunders was limited to just 20 games as a backup during his first two seasons, failing to make much of an impact.
While Saunders didn’t have the physical gifts to build an on-court career, he always had a sharp basketball mind. While getting his master’s degree, Saunders acted as a graduate manager to the men’s basketball team. Then, in 2009, Saunders made the leap to the NBA, getting his first assistant coach job with the Washington Wizards.
He spent five years with the Wizards before joining the Timberwolves as an assistant coach in 2014. He continued in that role up until Thibodeau’s firing, when he was handed the reins to the team.
NBA head coaching record
When Saunders was initially named interim coach, many commentators assumed that he would soon be replaced with a veteran. Saunders coached the last 42 games of the 2018-2019 season, compiling a 17-25 record. Of course, that lackluster record doesn’t reflect Saunders’ coaching so much as the problematic roster construction and unmotivated players.
Still, many around the league were surprised when the Timberwolves gave Saunders a multi-year deal over the summer. At the time, he was just 32 years old — making him one of the youngest head coaches in NBA history. In fact, the only younger coaches came back in the early days of the sports, when active players often held a coaching position as well.
So far, the Timberwolves’ bet on Saunders hasn’t off. Through their first 50 games, the Timberwolves have a dismal 15-35 record. Yet Saunders inherited a lot of problems from his predecessors, so he doesn’t deserve all of the blame. And with the Timberwolves making some big moves this year at the trade deadline — most notably, trading Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell — Saunders has a fresh chance to guide his team to wins.