Column: Thankful for work of Saunders and Fleck in Minnesota sports

Thanksgiving has just passed, so I thought this week I’d add another entry into my not-so-annual columns on who and what I’m thankful for this holiday season. Let’s get to it.

Ryan Saunders. The Minnesota Timberwolves still have much work to do on fixing their roster issues, but their 10-8 record is one of the biggest surprises of the NBA season so far.

Their moderate success is due in large part to the play of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Yes, I said Andrew Wiggins.

I’ve been back and forth on Wiggins the past few years, from thinking he was a rising star to thinking he was a lost cause, and back again. I blame the “lost cause” phase of his career on Tom Thibodeau, who laid waste to the organization during his two-plus seasons in Minnesota as head coach and personnel boss.

That’s where Ryan Saunders, the son of a beloved figure in Minnesota basketball, comes in. It wouldn’t be out of line to call Ryan the “Wiggins Whisperer.”

Just check out this per-game stat line for the month of November: 27.1 points on 48 percent shooting and 39.5 percent from 3-point range; 5.3 rebounds; 4.1 assists and 1.4 blocks.

Saunders and his coaching staff have worked hard to flush out Wiggins’ bad habits. He’s taking better shots, he’s showing more effort, and maybe most importantly, he looks like he’s having fun again.

It took longer than expected, but Wiggins is finally living up to his potential.

o

P.J. Fleck. I wrote about this guy just prior to the Minnesota Gophers’ big game against Penn State a couple weeks ago, and there’s not much more I can say here.

This weekend’s arrival in Minnesota of ESPN’s “College Gameday” show for the first time ever is one measure of how far Fleck has taken his program in a short period of time.

Fans were disappointed when Gophers-Nittany Lions was passed over by Gameday, and my initial thought was so what? But I get it now. Gameday is validation. To have your campus featured on national television and to have Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit talking about your program and your players -- that’s big time.

It’s a new milestone for Gophers football.

Some might still call Fleck a carnival barker with his corny catchphrases and his endless enthusiasm, but the results speak for themselves. Fleck has taken Minnesota football to heights not seen since my parents were children.

o

This column. When I was given the opportunity by my former editor Bill Hanna to continue writing for the Mesabi Daily News even after I’d moved out of state in 2013, I didn’t think I’d still be doing it more than six years later.

But then I just decided that as long as the MDN and its readership will have me, I’ll keep writing. So thank you.

Thank you for giving me a creative outlet to write about what I love, and thank you for reading.

o

Mike Hautamaki can be reached at hauts81@hotmail.com.

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