WASHINGTON D.C. - Flip Saunders face carries the wounds of several NBA battles from his time as a head coach. He looks like an NBA lifer, the kind of guy who has survived so much on this level.
But it's not like Saunders' only coaching experience is on the NBA level. Sure, he's been a head coach in the league every year save for one since 1995, but once upon a time, he was also a coach on lower levels. Saunders cut his teeth as a highly successful coach for junior college school Golden Valley Lutheran College in the 70s, and also has coached at Minnesota and in the CBA.
Now, Saunders said he feels like this year's Wizards team brings him back to those roots. He said he's excited that he's given a chance to "mold" the Wizards, much like he did when he was in college.
"One of the biggest differences about college coaching compared to the pros is that you have such an impact on young players, being able to help them as they mature. Sometimes, at our level, you don't have that same kind of situation, because agents get involved and all those things," Saunders said. "But when you have a young group like this which is receptive like they are, it's almost like going back to your college days."
To illustrate this, Saunders told a story of how he pranked the members of the team. Yesterday, he said he sent them a text message about how they needed to re-run one of the sprints required as part of their conditioning tests. Seven players responded and said "No problem, coach," forcing Saunders to send a text later to say he was kidding. Saunders said he was impressed by their dedication.
This is key, because as we mentioned the other day, Saunders hasn't had a team with young stars in over a decade. When asked about this, though, Saunders pointed to his experience coaching in college. It's a theme he went back on several times during the day.
"From my standpoint, the thing that helps me as much as anything is being a college coach. I was a junior college coach for four years, where you had to take players and mold them quick to try to help them," he said. "I also understand that from being in the CBA, where you've got a long of young players, and an ever-changing roster of players, having to teach them and get them to understand and facilitate their progression. Those things help in a situation like this, because you can mold them."
"College" and "mold" were two words that Saunders kept repeating all day. They came out of his mouth about as often as the phrase "player development" came out of Ernie Grunfeld's mouth last week. Therefore, I decided to ask him what exactly goes into "player development," to try to get an answer more substantive than "molding them."
Saunders' answer was lengthy and informative.
"Every day is player development. You have player development from an individual standpoint, as far as working on skills. You have player development from a mental standpoint, as far as intellectually. You have to watch film with [players] a lot, individually, and [they have] playbooks to understand. Then, you have physical development, as far as the weight room and conditioning," he said.
"So what has to happen is that all three of those things have to be integrated into the individual to continue to improve. Don't even let conditioning take away from your talent. Don't let intelligence take away from your talent. So I think that it's a combination of all those things," he continued.
"It's not something that we haven't done in the past, but when you have younger players, they may be more receptive, and it's more important," he said. "Our approach, our practices at times might be college-type of practices, going through a lot more fundamentals and drill work that you might not do with a veteran team. You have to approach it and understand that it's a clear white board. You have to assume these players don't know anything."
Time will tell whether Saunders is the right man to lead this group. He admitted when asked that this certainly wasn't what he signed up for when he became the Wizards' coach last season. However, he's excited about the opportunity, and it certainly sounds like he has the right idea. He's hoping to foster a team that's fast, athletic, hungry and improving as the season goes along, and I like what I'm hearing along those lines.
- Saunders on conditioning: "We're in a lot better condition that we were in the past, One of our goals is to be one of the best conditioned teams in the league ... our practices are going to be very grueling."
- Saunders on Arenas: "Right now, he's by far in the best shape he's been in the last three years, as far as physically, weight wise, how he looks, how his legs are. I know he wants to go out and prove a lot of things, and I think he's taking the right approach, as far as a serious approach. That's what we have to do as a team."
- More Saunders on Arenas: "I don't think anyone looks forward to talking to 50 people. You guys aren't the nicest guys in the world. Let's put it into perspective."
- Saunders on whether Arenas and John Wall will work well together: "You look at some of the better teams that have played. You look at Detroit, with Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas. Both of those guys were considered point guards, or guys that wanted to have the ball in their hands. Both these guys - they've played a lot together over the last few weeks. There won't be any problems there."
- Saunders on Andray Blatche: "He's in a different situation than he was a year ago. He didn't have John Wall. He didn't have Gilbert Arenas. He didn't have Kirk Hinrich. He didn't have Josh Howard. Those have four veterans guys who have played in this league and been very effective players, so he's not going to have to carry a big load like he did a lot last year. The main thing is that he's got to be efficient."
- Saunders on whether he'll employ a tight eight-man rotation like he pledged to do last year: "Right now, I'm going to keep everything open. We'll see how many guys can play. If we get 12 guys that can play, we'll play 12. Right now, it's pretty much open competition for everybody."
- Saunders on whether we'll see the same two-guard offensive sets we saw at the end of last year, rather that his typical point-guard driven attack: "We'll do some of [the two-guard sets]. The difference is that [Wall's] dynamics as far as his speed with the ball is off the charts, so we're not going to take away from one of the best things he does. We're going to get the ball in his hands and let him make decisions, but we'll run some two-guard sets too, because he's going to want some pressure taken off of him at times too."