MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Flip Saunders brought Kevin Garnett back home to help turn a young, impressionable Minnesota Timberwolves roster into a group that can pull the franchise out of a decade of futility.
Now that Saunders is on leave from the team while battling cancer, Garnett's return has never been more important.
''I see a lot of myself in some of these guys,'' Garnett said on Monday in his first public comments since signing a two-year, $16.5 million contract earlier this summer.
Garnett spent the first 12 years of his career in Minnesota, cementing himself as the lone iconic player in the franchise's 26 years in the league. He was traded to Boston in 2007, but Saunders engineered a deal with Brooklyn in February to get Garnett back to Minnesota, knowing his truly dominant days as a player were behind him yet still believing he could make an impact by showing young players like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng what it takes to succeed in the NBA.
The parting with Minnesota eight years ago wasn't pretty, which led Garnett to believe a homecoming would never be in the cards. But Saunders, who coached Garnett more 10 of his 12 years in Minnesota, helped to broker the deal.
''Minnesota was the last place that I would think I would end up,'' Garnett said. ''Although I did keep my home here. I do enjoy living here. I enjoy the people here. I enjoyed my time here so much that this is where I live. I am a Minnesotan. I never rule out any possibilities. I knew Flip and I have a great, great, great relationship.''
That has made the news of Saunders' illness even tougher on Garnett, who played just five games for the Wolves after the trade last season. Garnett had several conversations with Saunders throughout the summer before finally signing his contract to come back, with Saunders probing him to make sure the desire was still there to play at 39.
Garnett assured him it was, but Saunders announced in August that he was being treated for cancer. At the time he said he planned to continue working through the treatments, but earlier this month the Wolves announced that he would take a leave of absence after experiencing complications in the treatment.
''I'm being optimistic and I'm being positive, like everybody should be,'' Garnett said. ''Hopefully you guys have Flip in your prayers. The family's not really communicating a lot, but that's their wishes and I'm here to support all of their wishes. But anything I can do to help I'm willing and open to.''
Sam Mitchell, who as a player served as a mentor to Garnett in his youngest days with the Wolves, has been elevated to head coach. Garnett immediately and wholeheartedly endorsed Mitchell on Monday, a vote of confidence from the biggest voice in the locker room that could help calm the understandable turbulence created by the uncertainty surrounding Saunders' health.
''If there's anyone that you can pick or say that you want to have this position, Sam would definitely come to mind,'' Garnett said. ''Him and I have an unbelievable rapport just communicating. Communication is half the battle, if not all of it. So I feel good about his assessment of where we're going and how he sees us.''
The Wolves also added Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince, two veterans who can help Garnett with leadership. But it's clear who holds the most sway.
''We're going to expect the same from him in practice and we're going to expect a lot from him in the locker room,'' GM Milt Newton said. ''And on the floor KG is going to go out and give everything he's got.''
Rookie point guard Tyus Jones was a high school star in suburban Minneapolis before leading Duke the national title last season.
''Being from Minnesota and growing up being a big KG fan, it hasn't quite sunk in yet,'' Jones said of being Garnett's teammate. ''I'm excited to work with him. You see his work ethic and how determined he is and his mind for the game of basketball.''
As he has gotten older, coaches have gently tried to nudge Garnett away from his preferred power forward position to center, where he can help quarterback the defense.
''I still hate the center position,'' he said.
Garnett made it a point to emphasize that he thinks the young core that also includes point guard Ricky Rubio and No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns has a ''great'' future ahead of it.
''Not good, but great,'' Garnett said.
He says his body will tell him when it's time to retire and move into Timberwolves ownership. For now, he's ready to get back to work.
''I'm glad I'm here,'' he said.