In this week’s basketball coaching conversation, Denver Nuggets assistant coach Ryan Saunders shares insights on NBA defensive concepts and techniques.
Ryan Saunders played basketball at the University of Minnesota from 2004 to 2008. He graduated from Minnesota in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in sport management. He has a six-year professional playing career with stops in the NBA G League, as well as overseas in Australia, England, and Germany. Saunders was a graduate manager under Tubby Smith in the 2008–09 season while pursuing a master’s degree in applied kinesiology. In 2009, he began coaching in the NBA, becoming an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. Starting in 2014, he was an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
On January 6, 2019, Ryan Saunders was promoted to interim head coach of the Timberwolves after Tom Thibodeau was fired, also becoming the youngest head coach in the NBA for the 2018–19 season. On January 8, Saunders got his first win in his debut as head coach when the Timberwolves defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, and became the youngest head coach to win in his debut since 1978. At age 33, Saunders became the youngest head coach in the league, despite having over 10 years of NBA experience under his belt.
After his tenure with the Timberwolves, his next stop was with the Denver Nuggets who hired Saunders as an assistant coach under Michael Malone. Saunders won an NBA championship in 2023 when the Nuggets defeated the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Ryan Saunders Quotes:
You want to teach, you want to continue to improve, but you also understand that availability is the greatest attribute you can have. And so, with that comes a lot of film study, comes a lot of walkthroughs. We do a good amount of those types of things through the playoffs with coaches. We’re always trying to help find an edge with these guys.”
“Something that I feel has helped me reach some of the guys is really one, trying to find the way they learn . . Do they learn by seeing it through a video clip? Do they learn from seeing it? Can they read a diagram? Is that better for them to physically walk them through a diagram? Or are they the type of player that needs to be on the court and have that muscle memory? I think everybody’s different and that’s our challenge as coaches. And that’s why I think the summers are so important . . especially when you have a new group of guys, you want to try to learn how they learn, but you also need to try to learn how they can be coached.”
“Whatever level you’re at in terms of being a coach, you’re going to have a heavy burden on your shoulders. If we have assistants that can help take some of that load off, we’re all going to be better for it. So, my main goal [as an assistant coach] was just to come in and try to do whatever I could to help Coach Malone and help the organization . . It might be tough sometimes, I know everybody wants to work their way up, but I’ve always been a believer and learned from my dad, if you just take care of what you’re doing in that moment, everything else is going to take care of itself.”
“For our group, defense always starts out with our communication. We talk about accountability. You want to be accountable in your commands. We always speak early, loud, continuous, whatever command you’re calling . . we want you to say these commands three times early, loud, continuous . . for us it is a staple because we do want to talk early.”
“You probably have anywhere between 60 to 80% of your base defense, and then you’re probably adjusting 20% to 40%. You’re probably adjusting your levels of your pick and roll coverage . . So, you’re kind of looking at who’s going to be involved in most of those pick and roll actions because we’re seeing there are some nights you’re going to see over 115 pick and rolls a game in the NBA.”
“You can teach more within player development, too. Three-man actions are really prevalent in the NBA . . So, it’s good to work on those, whether it be in player development or in your pre-practice breakdown when you don’t have the whole team out there. You can work on your triple switches because it is something that I think we’re going to continue to see more and more of.”
“Your defensive package for your first unit could be completely different than your defensive package for your second unit . . I think that can work to your favor as well, where it’s a different look for the other team’s offense and for the other team’s preparation. If you’re able to defend in a couple of different ways, that should go back to do you have that personnel to be able to do that?”
Ryan Saunders Breakdown:
1:00 – Made this Team Special
3:00 – Unseen Hours
5:00 – Player vs Coach Led
8:00 – Challenges on One/Two Players
11:00 – Assistant to Head Coach Transition
13:00 – Collaboration with Coach Malone
16:00 – Head Coaching Opportunity
18:30 – Accountability on Defense
21:00 – Preferred Mechanism
25:30 – Personnel
28:00 – To Be Better Defensively
31:00 – Running Zone vs Modern Offense
34:00 – Certain Matchups
37:00 – Newcomers
41:00 – Triple Switches
43:00 – Zone concept of Bumping
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