Wolves’ Saunders, Newton hope familiarity breeds contender

MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders and Milt Newton expect to clash. They plan on disagreeing and debating, a collision of ideologies and philosophies hoped to result in better-informed decisions regarding most aspects of the Timberwolves’ operations.
It’s why Saunders hired Newton two weeks ago, and it’s part of why Newton’s so enthused as he lays ink to the next chapter of his basketball executive story.
“I really believe that if you like the people you work with, everything is easier,” said Newton, Minnesota’s new general manager. “We can have a disagreement and not be upset and have hatred for each other at the end of the day. We can agree to disagree. 
“I consider (Saunders) to be a friend, and a boss, and I think we’ll work real well together.”
The pair’s give-and-take relationship will help define the next era of Timberwolves basketball after Saunders took over as president of basketball operations in May. Not long after, he reached out to Newton — a former colleague in Washington — at the NBA Draft combine in Chicago.
The Wizards waited until after the draft and free agency to grant permission for a formal interview, but the groundwork for bringing in another personnel buff had been laid.
With a familiar boss, in-laws in Minneapolis and the opportunity to realize a dream he’s carried for two decades, Newton called the gig “a perfect fit.” So did the man who brought him in.
“I want to be challenged,” said Saunders, who retains ultimate authority in all basketball operations matters. “I don’t want someone just to always agree with what I say. That’s why, many times, when I get in the room, I’m the last one to give my opinion. I want to hear theirs first before they hear mine, so they don’t have to agree with me all the time.”
Newton brings with him a bevy of knowledge garnered during time with NBA franchises, the league’s front office and USA Basketball. For that reason, he’ll have a heavy say in all player personnel matters.
That’s nothing new for a guy who spent the past 10 years in Washington’s scouting and development department. But serving as another face of the Timberwolves organization and increased involvement in salary cap management, contract negotiations and the majority of the ins and outs of daily business inside the Target Center offices represent an expanded role he’s coveted the entire 22 years since he earned his master’s degree from the University of Kansas.
The road to seizing it provided Newton unique and diverse insights — the kind Saunders wants brought to the table.
A “melting pot,” Saunders called it.
Serving as USA Basketball’s assistant director from 1995-99 under Jim Tooley exposed Newton to international hoops and created a network of non-domestic scouting contacts. Volunteer work with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative helped do the same.
Newton knew about Senegalese center and Timberwolves first-round draft pick Gorgui Dieng long before anyone else in the organization did, Saunders said.
Newton is just as polished on the home front, having worked with NBA commissioner David Stern in helping establish the NBA Developmental League. Three years as the venture’s director of player personnel renders him an expert in the minor-league side of the game, something Saunders hopes to implement more in the coming years. He talked Tuesday of one day establishing a one-to-one, hybrid D-League affiliate like several other NBA teams have done.
Minnesota is also currently over the salary cap — though under the luxury tax — making additional free-agent signings to an already-overhauled roster very unlikely. D-League call-ups and send-downs are among the next-best options.
“You understand the talent that’s down there,” Saunders said in reference to Newton. ” You understand why they’re not here in the NBA, and so understanding that gives you a better idea to move forward, to get players and scout those players to understand the guys that can play for you.”
And if that wasn’t enough, traditional scouting and evaluation remain right up Newton’s alley. In addition to single-handedly building the Wizards’ scouting database and overseeing the entire pre-draft process, he cut his teeth for one season as a scout with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even in college, Newton learned how to build a championship roster.
He was a member of the “Danny and the Miracles” Kansas squad that made a historic run to the 1988 national title. That Larry Brown-led bunch was a pass-first, team-first group, Newton said, and such intangibles are included always on his checklist of potential prospects.
The same goes for Saunders, who coached in Washington for three years while Newton worked in the front office there.
“On a day-to-day occurrence, him being the coach and me being in management, I saw the enthusiasm he had for the game and the passion and the energy,” Newton said. “Just getting to know him every day, we just saw that we were alike in regards to what we believe that good players can bring to a team in terms of being ‘we’ not ‘me’ players, players that are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team.”
Minnesota holds a great deal of personal benefit for Newton and his family, to boot.
His wife, Shalaun Newton, grew up in the Twin Cities and attended Minnetonka High School. Her parents still live here.
Milt met his wife in college, as Shalaun ran track-and-field for the Jayhawks. His job in Washington allowed them and their two children, ages 10 and 6, to be reside near his parents for years, and he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity for his wife to do the same.
“Preventing my wife the chance to come home, I’d be divorced,” joked Newton, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Said Saunders: “Milt’s not from Minnesota, but he did the next-best thing by marrying a girl from Minnesota.”

Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter