Standing at midcourt just in front of Gregg Popovich, Minnesota head coach Ryan Saunders shouts “33!” at Minnesota guard Andrew Wiggins. It appears to be a mundane late third-quarter possession against the San Antonio Spurs in early November, but what transpires next is a peek under the hood of the youthful and remodeled Minnesota Timberwolves.
It begins with Saunders, who, at 33 years old, is the NBA’s youngest coach. Saunders was just 10 years old when the guy a few feet to his right, Popovich, took over coaching duties in San Antonio in 1996. Despite the obvious symmetry, the “33!” play-call was not a reference to Saunders’ age, but rather an idea that encapsulates everything that’s different in Minnesota these days.
Saunders has been hell-bent on getting his team to maximize efficiency wherever they can. Part of that plan is to regularly execute two-for-ones -- a nerdy efficiency ploy at the end of quarters that has been a long been a favorite of the analytics crowd. The goal: take a quick shot with roughly 33 seconds left on the game clock to ensure the Wolves get the ball back for a second shot before the quarter ends. Even if they’re not great looks, two bites of the apple is better than one, the numbers say.
The situation against San Antonio is ripe for a two-for-one, but only if Wiggins listens. After collecting a rebound with 45 seconds left in the quarter, Wiggins could have tuned out his coach, dribbled around and forced a mid-range jumper with 22 seconds left on the clock, gifting the Spurs with the last shot of the quarter. But on this particular possession, Wiggins breezes past halfcourt, drives hard into the teeth of the Spurs’ defense, unleashes a dizzying spin move and dishes to the cutting Jake Layman for a wide-open dunk.
The clock reads 34.3 seconds, just shy of the “33” target. Nearly perfect. A few moments later, Jeff Teague snares the ball away from the Spurs with 12 seconds left. The Wolves slow it down for the last shot. Wiggins calls for the ball, gets it, orchestrates a high pick-and-roll and pulls up for a deep 3-pointer. Swish.
The bench breaks out in joyous hysteria. Minnesota assistant coach and former NBA player Pablo Prigioni gives a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump. Jordan Bell gets down on one knee and mockingly stares down the Spurs. Karl-Anthony Towns promptly introduces the world to KATDance.
And Saunders? “I almost wept tears of joy,” Saunders jokes now, looking back.
That stretch was one of many signals that the Wolves, one of the youngest teams in the league, are buying in to Saunders’ new approach. And that includes the most inefficient high-volume shooter in the league last season, Andrew Wiggins.
* * *
Gersson Rosas isn’t naive. Despite deploying two former No. 1 overall picks in Wiggins and Towns, Rosas understands that turning the Wolves into a championship contender won’t happen overnight. This will take time. Hired away from the Houston Rockets this summer to oversee basketball operations, Rosas set out to find a head coach for the future, or what he labels as “his partner” in Minnesota.
After taking over for Tom Thibodeau last January as interim head coach, Saunders became the early favorite. The son of a local icon, the late Flip Saunders, Ryan Saunders was a purebred Minnesotan with deep roots in the Twin Cities. But Rosas felt Saunders was a coaching prodigy when the two met almost a decade ago when Saunders was an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards fresh out of college. Saunders had helped develop an iPad app called Gametime Concepts that tracked pick-and-roll efficiencies in real-time on the bench -- unheard of in the NBA world. The two kept in touch over the years and became close, regularly grabbing lunch on days when the Wolves and Rockets played each other.
“I consider Gers one of my best friends,” Saunders says. “We go way back.”
Still, Rosas wasn’t going to hand Saunders the job. Rosas brought in several candidates for the head-coaching job and interviewed Saunders like he was just another hopeful. Saunders had to earn the job the old-fashioned way.
“We had some really great candidates,” Rosas says now. “But at the end of the day, Ryan was an ideal partner. Not just in terms of the person and the character he is, but the approach and philosophy. I give Ryan a ton of credit. He knows these guys better than most and that’s a huge advantage. To search for a partner to execute this vision, that’s a built-in advantage.”
Both Rosas and Saunders knew that helping Wiggins fulfill his potential would be key to the Wolves’ success and Saunders’ relationship with Wiggins was at the center of it all. The two have been close ever since their professional lives merged in 2014, when the Wolves traded for Wiggins and Saunders joined his father on Minnesota’s bench. When Saunders married his wife Hayley in 2017, he made sure Wiggins was there. When Saunders found out he and Hayley were expecting their first child due this past June, Wiggins was one of the first calls he made. When Saunders won his first game last season, Wiggins made sure he was the first to dap up the interim coach -- that is, after the team mauled Saunders with hugs, cheers and bottled water in the postgame locker room.
Basketball joy has been hard to come by for Wiggins. Since signing a $147 million max contract in 2017, Wiggins has been something of a punching bag in NBA circles. The Kansas Jayhawk had developed a sticky reputation of the bad-team, good-stats guy. When ESPN left Wiggins off their annual top-100 list in October, Wiggins fired back, saying “There’s not 100 players better than me, so it doesn’t matter what people think. My job is to come out here and hoop, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Unlocking Wiggins was going to take some tough love, but Saunders wasn’t going to do it alone.
* * *
The turning point came in a Bahamian piano bar back in August. During the Wolves’ three-day getaway to the BahaMar resort on the island of Nassau in the Bahamas, Saunders and Rosas wanted a heart-to-heart chat with the 24-year-old Wiggins. This was going to be a big season for Wiggins, whose salary and productivity had been heading in opposite directions. But with a new front office and a handpicked coaching staff, this was seen as a new chapter for Wiggins.
Wiggins agreed and told them to meet him at the aptly-named Jazz Bar, a karaoke bar on the resort premises. As tunes from the 80s and 90s poured through the speakers, Rosas and Saunders shared a bottle of wine with Wiggins, talking about life and family and the future.
Wiggins could sense that Rosas was a family man when Rosas’ 3-year-old twins crashed his introductory press conference in May and climbed into Rosas’ lap on stage. But it was a summer afternoon workout at the Minnesota practice facility that really stuck with Wiggins. While Wiggins got his shots up, Wiggins’ girlfriend, Mychal Johnson, and their 1-year-old daughter made an impromptu visit to the facility to watch the workout alongside Rosas. At one point, Wiggins looked over and saw Rosas lifting up his daughter into his arms.
“He held my daughter like his own,” Wiggins told The Athletic in June. “He said he’s a big family guy, and so am I, and I feel like that goes a long way right there.”
Back in the Bahamas lounge, the three fathers connected about what they saw in themselves and what they wanted to be.
“It wasn’t always rah-rah feel-good stuff,” Rosas says. “It was at times a hard conversation. He let us know that he wanted to be successful and not only that, he wanted to be successful here.”
Says Rosas: “If I wanted to find a player at his age, with his physical tools, with his talent and upside, I couldn’t find somebody like that on the trade market or free agent market. You can’t help but invest in that and see what you have.”
Rosas and Saunders wanted to reach Wiggins on a personal level, but also empower him and his teammates with a world-class support staff. That investment required infrastructure with an eye toward efficiency, so Rosas hired former Rockets colleague Sachin Gupta as executive VP of basketball operations. An MIT graduate, the architect of the ESPN Trade Machine and later, Sam Hinkie’s co-pilot running the Philadelphia 76ers, Gupta is renowned in NBA circles for being an ideas man. To upgrade the player health department, Rosas added Robby Sikka, a well-respected injury guru from the Mayo Clinic, as VP of basketball performance and technology. Under Rosas’ leadership, the Wolves even revamped their nutrition program, partnering with James Beard Award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen and Food Network star Andrew Zimmern, both culinary icons in the Twin Cities.
“We’ve reformatted the organization,” Rosas says. “On the court and off the court. How we treat our players. How we accommodate our players. How we invest in our players.”
Those investments are paying early returns.
* * *
Saunders decided to run an experiment during training camp. With the season around the corner, Saunders is on the hunt for what he calls “the little things,” the small areas of the game where the Wolves can leverage their youthful energy and fresh intel.
“Take care of the little things,” Saunders says over the phone, “and they’ll become big things.”
On this day, Saunders is particularly interested in the direction of the ball after a missed corner 3.
Popularized by Popovich and the Spurs, corner 3s are a hallmark of the analytics movement because of their floor-spacing value and the fact that they go in more than your average 3-pointer. While 3-point attempts have doubled since 1996-97, corner 3s have tripled in frequency, from 2.4 per game to 7.3, per NBA.com tracking. To Saunders, and the Wolves’ new front office, this presented something of an opportunity.
In the offseason, Gupta and Minnesota’s analytics team noticed they could generally predict where misses from certain areas of the court would fall off the rim. The landing spot of corner 3s, in particular, were easier to forecast. If the Wolves could get to those rebound locations before the opponent -- Saunders now calls them “hot spots” -- could they find an edge, however small it might be?
Possibly, but Saunders needed to see it to believe it. At practice in camp, Gupta, Rosas and Saunders stood shoulder-to-shoulder about eight feet from the rim. They asked one of their wing players to shoot 3s from the corner. The rest of the roster eagerly watched from the sidelines, waiting to watch the magician’s act.
The first miss hit Saunders in the chest. Promising. The next one, again, directly to the hot spot. The players yelped in anticipation. The next three shots -- boom, boom, boom -- bounced off the rim and fell into the trio’s hands. The gym was floored. And more importantly, sold.
“The players thought it was rigged,” Rosas says. “First day we put it in, it was like, bang, bang, bang, bang. And all of us were looking at each other like, man, this thing works.”
After pulling a rabbit out of his hat, Saunders engineered a plan to have a designated weak-side defender crash the hot spot as soon as a corner 3-pointer was launched. The results so far have been astonishing. Minnesota has rebounded 90.7 percent of opponent corner 3s, which is the single-best mark in the pbpstats.com statistical database dating back to the 2000-01 season.
On the other side of the floor, the Wolves are reaping the benefits of these hot spots. Minnesota has the third-highest offensive rebound rate on its own corner 3s entering play Thursday, with one player in particular showing a keen eye for these hot spots.
The team’s leader in corner 3 rebounds? That would be Wiggins. His corner 3 rebound rate has tripled since last season, grabbing 34 percent of the available boards compared to just 12 percent last season. It represents another small but meaningful change.
* * *
Back in San Antonio in early November, Saunders is practically giddy over what he’s just seen. It isn’t just that Wiggins followed Saunders’ instructions and played for the two-for-one. It was the choice he made that showed just how far Wiggins has come.
When Rosas was hired this summer, one of his first on-court priorities was to clean up the Wolves’ shot selection. For the past decade, Rosas was the Houston Rockets’ No. 2 in command behind Daryl Morey. The Rockets pioneered a league-wide movement in shot selection, commonly dubbed “MoreyBall,” where teams emphasize 3-pointers, free throws and shots at the rim and de-emphasize the less efficient shots in the mid-range.
The Wolves had lagged far behind the rest of the league in this area. At the time of Thibodeau’s departure in January 2019, the Wolves had taken the seventh-most mid-range jumpers per game in the league and the eight-fewest 3-pointers despite hitting both shots at an almost identical rate (36.6 percent on long 2s and 35.6 percent on 3s). By simply stepping inside the line, the Wolves were giving away free points.
“How do we communicate that effectively to the players?” Rosas says now. “We don’t want to be telling our players, ‘Don’t do that.’ The negatives are not a big part of our vocabulary.”
So they turned to stickers. Rather than tell players about point values, they showed them. Literally. The Wolves placed stickers throughout their practice court showing the expected point values of certain shots on the court, encased in a rectangle. For high value shots, they filled the box with green. For low value shots, they filled it with red. It was a simple way to visualize their value proposition.
“It’s not that we don’t want to shoot long 2s,” Rosas says. “But we believe in high value shots. We have to shoot the right shots.”
The stickers are strategically placed. Two straddle the 3-point line on the wing. Just outside the line, a green box says “1.3” showing the expected point value. Just inside the line, a red box reads “0.9.” (The stickers could be seen in the viral video of Towns and three other Wolves players synchronized Eurostepping off the floor in the middle of a pick-and-roll action).
So far, the stickers are having their intended effect. The Wolves have seen the largest increase in 3-point attempts compared to last season compared to other teams across the league. Only Rosas’ former team, the Rockets, have taken more 3-pointers than Minnesota this season.
Of course, the shots haven’t been falling. The team is shooting just 31.3 percent on 3s, the third-lowest figure in the NBA. But Saunders has preached persistence, and the message has stuck with Wiggins. After shooting 0-for-4 and 0-for-3 from deep in the first two games of the season, Wiggins has doubled down on 3-pointers since, taking no fewer than five in each game, converting at a 36-percent clip.
“It’s building the foundation,” Rosas says. “I’m a big believer, and Ryan’s a big believer, that the results are going to come.”
* * *
Skeptics may claim that we’ve seen this from Wiggins before. In 2016-17, he averaged 27.4 points per game over the team’s first 11 games under Thibodeau. It proved to be little more than small-sample-size theater, buttressed by an early 47-point outing rather than consistency.
It got worse last season when Wiggins ranked 40th among 40 players in effective field goal percentage (minimum 15 attempts per game). But there are signs that Wiggins has fundamentally changed his game, thanks in part, at least, to Saunders’ commitment to the little things. With a healthier shot profile, Wiggins now ranks 15th among 42 players on the effective field goal percentage leaderboard, just behind James Harden.
Wiggins’ growth can also be seen outside of the scoring column. Before missing the last four games, Wiggins had registered five straight games with at least five assists per game. Before this season, his longest such streak lasted two games -- when he was a rookie. More importantly, while Wiggins’ assist rate is up, his turnovers are down, and his defense, long a sticking point around the league, is finally showing consistent results. Entering play Wednesday, Wiggins had strung together eight consecutive games with a blocked shot, something he hadn’t done until Saunders took over coaching duties. The Wolves have also held opponents to just 106 points per 100 possessions with Wiggins and Towns on the floor, compared to an ugly 111.2 points per 100 possessions last season, per NBA.com.
“We’re not saying it, we’re doing it,” Rosas repeats. “Actions over words.”
Rosas downplays the team’s 8-7 start and says he’s more interested in the culture change, the process behind the scenes. He loves what he’s seeing from Towns (“His competitive fire and his competitive nature is coming through”) and Wiggins and the supporting cast of energetic youngsters like Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver. But the longtime Rockets executive continues to emphasize the long-term vision.
“I was fortunate to be around Houston when Hakeem Olajuwon was winning championships, but that doesn’t happen until he’s 33 (years old),” Rosas says. “James Harden wins an MVP at 29. You’re talking about a couple of players in Karl and Andrew who are 24. Their best basketball is far ahead of them.”
Rosas pauses. He’d like to talk more about the process, not the win-loss record. To the Wolves, Wiggins is scratching the surface, one hot spot at a time.
“We’re in the very early stages,” Rosas says. “Kind of like a startup. Here in Minnesota, we have to be creative. If we want to be a successful organization, we have to glean advantages wherever we can.”
Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.