RICHMOND | The Washington Wizards were in their fourth day of training camp Friday, and Flip Saunders took the floor at Virginia Commonwealth, bracing for a rough practice.
His players had competed at such a high level the first three rigorous days, so it was only natural, the coach figured, that the level would drop off. But his players surprised him and turned out another productive day - perhaps a sign the coach still was pushing the right buttons.
On Saturday morning many of the players reported again but were dragging as they prepped for practice. But the fatigue never translated to the court, because Saunders broke out a football, divided his players into pairs and had them run pass routes and take turns playing quarterback and receiver.
With the grogginess quickly forgotten thanks to the entertaining activity, the Wizards again had a productive practice and effectively absorbed more of their coach's offensive and defensive schemes.
It was yet another effective stunt pulled out of Saunders' extensive and creative bag of tricks, which he has used to put his fingerprints on his new team. Saunders has ensured camp is anything but predictable. More importantly, his methods already have yielded results.
Younger players like Andray Blatche and Nick Young, who admittedly are more visual learners and had trouble remembering the plays the last few seasons, have picked up Saunders' system with more ease thanks to the iPod Touch devices featuring Saunders' entire 750-page playbook and video clips of how each play should be run. The Wizards feel more united thanks to the off-court activities, and the unconventional teaching methods have made practices fly by.
"He keeps it fresh, keeps it fun, always has you expecting something different," Caron Butler said. "It's the same thing, getting your reps in, but [the methods are] always something different, so it keeps it fun."
Keeping things fresh and unpredictable is exactly what Saunders had in mind, but the unconventional approach is nothing new for him. The tools (like the iPods) may be a pioneering wave of the future. But going back to his days as basketball coach at Minneapolis Junior College at the dawn of his coaching career, Saunders has tried to find unique ways to prepare his players.
"I've just always done things differently," Saunders said. "I've always said there are different ways to motivate, and I've tried to do things to somehow bring fun to it because I think if you enjoy doing something, you're going to do it better."
Saunders learned that firsthand as a college basketball player who had to endure "unbelievably long practices" and often found himself thinking, "Boy, we should do something different." But in addition to breaking up monotony, Saunders uses quirky teaching methods to keep his players on edge and constantly guessing. He has found that if players are used to adapting to different situations constantly, they will be better equipped to handle the unexpected twists and turns in games.
A basketball-purist coach might frown upon or wonder about the usefulness of Saunders' methods, but as long as he reaps the results he's after, he doesn't care.
"I've always been a more out-of-the-box type of individual as far as doing things," Saunders said. "I can remember as a little kid, I remember getting some crazy pajamas, writing my name on the back and going in the basement, singing 'Sweet Georgia Brown' and doing ball-handling, thinking I was going to play for the Globetrotters, so I guess it started back then."