MINNEAPOLIS — In the days leading up to his first training camp as an NBA head coach, Ryan Saunders is understandably busy. Finding time to sit down with a reporter this past week wasn’t easy.
There’s much to do ahead of this week’s official start of what’s widely considered a fresh start for the Timberwolves, never mind the fact that players have been working out in the facility for weeks.
For Saunders it’s organized chaos. On the whiteboard in his office is a massive checklist of things he needs to do before the Wolves open practice Tuesday, Oct. 1 in Mankato.
From playbooks to hotel visuals, rookie-night plans to drill books, Saunders has already thought of it all because, over the past 10 years, he wrote it all down. At 33, he’s the NBA’s youngest coach, but he’s been preparing for this moment since college, and he has the receipts to prove it.
Or, rather, the notebooks.
“I’ve got a box of ‘em,” he said.
Each contains notes, ideas and lessons that have helped mold Saunders into a man he believes is ready for this job, and this moment.
Always on hand
Flip through a few of Saunders’ notebooks and you’ll find something entirely different on each page. On one might be a list of things Saunders wanted Josh Okogie to work on this offseason. The next is a drawing of an inbounds-play coming out of a timeout.
There is a page containing principles for defending the Warriors. On another is the phrase “hot sauce and sugar,” which describes the balance players need from their coach.
Altogether, it’s an inside look at a basketball coach’s stream of consciousness. He almost always carries a notebook — Moleskine brand only — in his pocket, so he’s ready to jot something down whenever he sees or thinks of something he believes will be useful.
“When I say I’ve got hundreds back home,” Saunders said, “I mean I’ve got hundreds.”
Proof that a coach’s mind never truly leaves basketball.
“There’s always some form of basketball, like, in the back of your head, especially in this role,” Saunders said. “There’s a lot to be done, and there’s a lot of responsibility, which I welcome because I love it.”
Saunders has been taking notes since he was a student at the University of Minnesota, although he said he can’t remember a day when he didn’t jot his thoughts down daily.
“You know this is what you want at some point in your career. I knew that pretty quick,” he said. “But I wanted to make sure it was done in the right way, where I didn’t skip steps.
“Having grown up with a dad who was a head coach, I understood that it was going to take a lot of work, a lot of confidence in yourself. But also you have to have confidence from other people to give you that opportunity. But you’ve got to earn it.”
Failures, and lessons
Not every idea he’s ever written down was a good one, far from it. Some of those pages are filled with what not to do, much of which he has learned from personal experiences.
“You might see something that didn’t work either from somebody else or (yourself),” Saunders said. “I have plenty of different situations where I feel that I didn’t do a good job in terms of interactions, or how I’ve dealt with an interaction or a confrontation.”
Saunders coached the Timberwolves’ Summer League team for three consecutive seasons, making him an elder statesman of sorts in the Las Vegas exhibition league. He used the experience to learn and grow. Immediately after the final game of his first season, Saunders hit the notebook, charting what worked, what didn’t, what he perhaps wasted too much time on.
“So then, over the next few years, I feel like I got better and better, because I’d refer to those,” he said. “It helps me be more efficient.”
Early in his time as an assistant coach in Washington, Saunders felt there was a certain Wizards rookie who wasn’t being respectful of others’ time. Saunders made a point to talk to the player, only to realize later that the timing was bad.
“I wrote that down, and I haven’t done it that way since,’ Saunders said. “That was 10 years ago.”
After his interview with Gersson Rosas for the Timberwolves’ full-time head coaching position, Saunders wrote about how it went and what he was asked. He wanted to learn from the experience to be ready for the next opportunity in case he did not get this job.
He tries to gain something from every day, even the bad ones.
“I think everybody has a lot of room for growth, just in general,” Saunders said. “I understand that I have a number of things that I want to get better at, but I think that’s just the growth mindset.”
He pointed to his notebooks.
“That’s where this plays into things,” he said.
You can learn a lot from your failures.
“And then conversations with people who are better than you,” Saunders said.
After attending a Gophers’ practice, Ryan Saunders sat down in P.J. Fleck’s office to chat with the football coach. When Fleck started really talking, Saunders started writing.
His notebooks are filled with the thoughts of more than 1,000 people from all sorts of backgrounds.
“It can be my pastor, it can be a mental skills coach, it can be whoever,” Saunders said.
Even a reporter?
“You haven’t said anything insightful yet,” Saunders said.
He’s had conversations with various coaches from different sports all across the country, specifically from those known for doing things differently. Some of those conversations have turned into good friendships.
Then, of course, there are the past lessons he leans on — many of which came from his late father, Flip, who coached and ran the Timberwolves on and off from 1995 until his death in 2015.
“For me now, it’s fun for me to look back, since he can’t speak to me, to look at some of the things, the quotes that he said, things that he taught me that I thought were important enough to write down,” Saunders said. “Because I didn’t know they were lessons until he was gone.”
Saunders’ notebooks chart his evolution as a coach. The ones from his days as a Gophers’ player, or even a graduate assistant under Tubby Smith, are filled with more elementary concepts. Over the last decade, they advanced exponentially.
Over the past five years, the ideas have slanted heavily toward analytics and new approaches to old problems. But he also pays attention to the past. Some are labeled “HC,” marked so Saunders could refer to them when he became a head coach.
Many were reminders of beliefs he’s held near and dear for years — being honest with yourself, getting to know your players as people and empowering assistants. The football-like coordinator system the Wolves’ are employing this season is also written down somewhere in the depths of Saunders’ notebooks.
Years of note-taking, learning and adapting helped Saunders get the job he always wanted.
“I’m really excited, but I’m so focused on the team. I love being part of a team and the camaraderie and trying to get better,” he said. “That’s part of what these (notebooks) were for me, to help me get to a point like this, where I have this opportunity at a young age, which I think helped speed up the process for me a little bit.
“I knew that I wanted to be ready for it.”