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20 Days, 20 Questions: Can Flip Saunders coach a young team?

The question of how Flip Saunders tries to go about coaching the youngest team he's coached in over a decade and a half (possibly ever) was always something on my list of topics to explore, even before 20Q was conceived.  That said, the question became even more relevant after Michael Lee revealed this nugget earlier in the week.

He has already tried to connect with his youngsters by coming up with an idea for a Midnight Madness practice that will help the rookies get their first NBA practice out the way at the time when their emotions and nerves are high.    

Evidently, Saunders knows this is a legitimate question too.  It's not his fault, but it's worth noting that it's been a long time since his players have been this young.  With that said, here's our next question:

Will Saunders be patient enough to maximize the development of such a young team like this?

To underscore the contrast between the teams Saunders has coached in the more recent past, here are all the ways to illustrate just how young the Wizards will be next season.

  • They have four rookies.
  • Not a single player on the roster was born in the 1970s.
  • The team has seven players who are 25 or younger.
  • The team has nine players (if you include Adam Morrison, who may not make the active roster) that have yet to sign a second contract past their slotted rookie deals.
  • The three oldies on the team -- Josh Howard, Kirk Hinrich and Gilbert Arenas -- are 30, 29 and 28, respectively. 
  • The average age of the seven other players expected to garner the ten most minutes on the roster is 22.1.
On the other side, would you like to know the last time a Flip Saunders-coached team had to integrate a lottery-picked rookie into their mix?

Wally Sczcerbiak and William Avery. In 1999.

Since then, the only other first-round rookies Saunders has been given are Ndudu Ebi in 2003, Jason Maxiell in 2006 and Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo in 2007.  Of that group, only Stuckey went in the top 25.  It's not Saunders fault this happened, because it was Kevin McHale that cost Minnesota all those first-round picks, but it's still pretty striking.  Integrating a bunch of rookies and new young players is something Saunders just hasn't done in a while.

However, he has done it, back in the early stages of his career with the Timberwolves.  Saunders took over a morbid franchise in 1996 that was stocked with youngsters and molded them into a playoff team very quickly.  In his first full season in 1996/97, he made the playoffs with a 19-year old Stephon Marbury and a 20-year old Kevin Garnett as the team's best players.  The comparison isn't perfectly apt, because the other key members of the Timberwolves were older (Tom Gugliotta was 27, Sam Mitchell was 33, Terry Porter was 33, etc.), but it's close enough.  Saunders has coached young stars before; it was just a long time ago.

That's why, ultimately, I'm not too worried about this question.  Saunders has faced a lot of criticism from some of his former players about his style, but save for that one Andray Blatche incident, most of that criticism has been with veterans.  Last season, he was at his happiest later in the year, after the veterans were traded away.  At the end of the day, Saunders has to be credited to some degree for Blatche's improvement, Shaun Livingston's resurgence and JaVale McGee's relative success later in the year.  He showed more player development skills with youngsters than Eddie Jordan ever did (which isn't saying much, but still...).  Assuming the expectations for this year are modest, which they will be, Saunders and his staff should be able to be relatively successful with player development.  

To go back to the anecdote from the jump, the one thing that's always impressed me about Saunders is his creativity. Midnight Madness was only the latest example of this.  You might remember the I-Touches from earlier in the year, or the fact that he traveled around the country visiting players and emphasizing skill development.  You also might remember how he scrapped his Hawk-heavy offensive system late in the year and went to more of a two-guard, post-oriented attack.  Saunders has a reputation as a stubborn system coach, but I think that's unfounded.  In fact, I think it's the opposite.  Older players don't like change and outside-the-box thinking, which partially explains the fallout in Detroit.  They want things the way they've been.  Younger players, however, are potentially more open to this kind of thinking and respond better to it.  I think we saw that last season, and I think we'll see it again.

There are other concerns I have about Saunders coaching this group, but it's youth is not one of them.  I think that, by and large, Saunders and his staff will do a pretty good job developing the young talent on this team properly.