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Power Forward Friday: The return of Larry Sanders

Our weekly search for the ideal power forward looks at Larry Sanders, who’s hopeful for an NBA comeback.

Milwaukee Bucks v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In the context of NBA players coming out of retirement, they won’t be setting off fireworks for Larry Sanders. This isn’t Jordan after baseball or Allen Iverson’s renaissance with the Sixers. Larry Sanders is an ex-Milwaukee Bucks centre, a skinny 6’11” dirty work player who plays big and blocks shots.

The Situation

Sanders, if you remember, hung up his sneakers in 2015. After a pair of marijuana-related suspensions, he explained that he had entered a program to deal with anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. He said that his relationship with basketball was strained, that it was “consuming so much of my life right now... it’s not there for me. It’s not that worth it.”

It was revelatory stuff in the NBA world — very seldom do we see athletes admit to mental illness and its impact on their day-to-day lives. Now, a couple days after #BellLetsTalk pointed our conversations in this direction, the timing just seems right for us to talk about Larry Sanders again. Yesterday, he sent out a tweet saying that his mind is right, he’s feeling better, and is looking for an NBA team to join.

This is exciting news for Sanders, but also for a number of NBA teams who are one big man away. The Golden State Warriors worked him out over the summer, but that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. Now the Warriors are among a number of suitors; as CBS Sports’ James Herbert outlines, the Cavaliers, Celtics, Clippers, Hornets, Blazers, and Raptors should all be gazing in Sanders’ direction. It looks like Boston has the inside game right now — as they were the only team to work him out privately on Thursday.

This means nothing to me though! Let’s look at Larry Sanders’ fit with the Toronto Raptors, whose interior defense has been nothing short of depressing over the last month.

The Basketball Fit

Drafted with the 15th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Sanders’ career was... adventurous leading up to his retirement. After bouncing around the Bucks and the D-League, Sanders had a mini-breakout in 2012, where he finished second in the league in blocks per game and third in voting for Most Improved Player. He was given a four-year extension, and that’s when the trouble started.

Sanders’ next two seasons were cut short by injury. The first injury was a torn ligament in his thumb, sustained during a night club altercation where he was fined for disorderly conduct and assault and battery. The second injury was a fractured right orbital bone. The drug suspensions followed, and Sanders stepped away from the game. His career averages? 6.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. None of this really screams “game-changer” for the Raptors.

Then, you watch the tape. The 28-year-old Sanders has a defensive skill-set that would be valuable to any team looking for some interior toughness. He’s got a rangy, athletic body — akin to a John Henson or JaVale McGee, and has a bit more control than those two guys. He’s capable of scoring inside and has a better defensive IQ, you would think, then youngster Lucas Nogueira and Jonas Valanciunas.

The Emotional Fit

While there are some unsavoury aspects of Sanders’ story, it’s easy to root for a guy who was so candid about how mental illness affected his relationship with basketball, and had the courage to walk away when things were going south.

It’s also not too wild to see the Raptors taking a Jason Thompson-type flyer on a player like Sanders. While he wouldn’t come in and jump up the depth chart, it’s another warm body to use in circumstantial situations. If the Raptors are going to continue to guard aggressively on the perimeter, they need some sort of interior deterrent to improve their team defense. Sanders isn’t a blue chip acquisition to accomplish that, but it’s a positive move.

The Verdict

On Larry Sanders, I’m more “sure, why not” than “we need this guy now”. It’s an incremental move, though, and one the Raptors made last year to improve their depth for the playoffs. While Thompson didn’t necessarily do anything great, so his impact was negligible, Sanders has one discernable skill that he can add to the Raptors. He’s big and he can block shots.

What are your thoughts on Larry Sanders’ return?