Legacy of Flip Saunders, draft night will stay with Tyus Jones forever

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones (1) controls the ball against Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 2, 2016 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

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Minnesota Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones (1) controls the ball against Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 2, 2016 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

The Universe, as they say, works in mysterious ways.

Thursday morning, as I prepared for an arranged interview with Timberwolves point guard Tyus Jones, I received an Instagram notification that someone had just "liked" a photo I took and posted of Jones at his draft party last June _ more than eight months ago.

When something like that happens, it tends to weird me out. Who is scouring my social media months after the fact and liking my stuff?

In this case, though, it turned out to be serendipitous. I started thinking more about that night _ the Wolves taking Karl-Anthony Towns No. 1 overall and then the equal (if not surpassed) buzz of the question: would they make a trade and draft Jones?

They did, of course, and with Jones having a draft party just a block away from Target Center, it turned into a memorable night. If it was memorable enough for someone to like a photo eight months later, I figured it was worth asking Jones to revisit it.

I'm glad I did.

"I remember that night so well. I know it like the back of my hand. I'll never forget everything about that night. It was one of the best nights of my life," Jones said. "I just remember talking with Flip on the phone, and him telling me that the Cavaliers were about to draft me but that we already had a trade set up and I was going to be a Timberwolf. Immediately I just broke down. Being able to be a part of my hometown team and knowing that Flip believed in me, that just means the world _ to know that someone is taking a chance and believes in you. And then, him, Milt (Newton) and Mr. (Glen) Taylor all walked down the street and came to my draft party. It just shows a lot about the three of them and how much of a family this is around here. Everyone treats each other like family. That was very special and something I'll always remember."

I told Jones of the things I remembered most about being at that draft party was Flip grabbing him excitedly and telling him, "We worked really hard to get you, so you better play your butt off," and maybe in more colorful language than that.

"Oh yeah. He did. He did. It was in a good way," Jones said, smiling. "It was with the right intentions. I definitely knew what he meant. They worked hard and pulled some strings to make that trade possible, but that just shows how much he believed in me and that meant a lot."

The sweet moment is now laced with sadness, of course. Four months later, Saunders _ who was so full of energy that night _ died due to complications from Hodgkin's lymphoma. The vast basketball community has dealt with the loss in various ways. For Jones, who had built a relationship with Saunders throughout his prep career at Apple Valley, Minn., it was particularly hard.

"Me, personally, it did," Jones said. "I've known Flip since I was in high school. I had a good relationship with him. The fact that he still believed in me and to be a part of his team and be a point guard on his team, that meant a lot to me.

"For him to pass," Jones said, his voice trailing off before finishing, "he took a chance on me and made my dream a reality."

Saunders envisioned Jones as an NBA-caliber point guard. It's been a trying rookie season, but lately Jones has been given the chance to sink or swim as the backup point guard playing regular minutes. There has been some of both _ and maybe more of the sinking if we're being honest _ but Jones remains committed to fulfilling Saunders' vision.

"I just want to continue to improve every day on both ends of the floor," he said. "I want to become a better floor general for this team _ someone who can run the second unit when I'm out there. Just be a positive staple on this team and try to help contribute as much as I can."