Former NBA center Larry Sanders is one of the most misunderstood athletes in professional sports.
When he decided to leave the NBA at 26 years old, agreeing to a buyout that left the bulk of his recently-signed $44 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks on the table, most people couldn’t comprehend his decision. Yes, he took a personal leave of absence after being suspended twice for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program, but why would a very talented player walk away from the NBA and all of the perks that come with that lifestyle? Fans were equally confused and disappointed, as Sanders had become an exciting, up-and-coming center in Milwaukee.
Sanders had averaged 7.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks with a 7.1 block percentage over the course of his five-year career. His breakout campaign was the 2012-13 season, when he averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 27.3 minutes while shooting 50.9 percent from field. That season, his averages per-100-possessios were 18.2 points, 17.6 rebounds and 5.3 blocks. At one point, he led the league in limiting opponents’ shooting percentage at the rim, so it was a no-brainer for Milwaukee to invest in him in August of 2013.
Then, he surprised everyone and decided he needed a break from the NBA lifestyle.
Well, Basketball Insiders recently caught up with the 27-year-old Sanders to discuss why he decided to leave the Bucks, why an NBA comeback isn’t out of the question, what off-court endeavors he’s been pursuing and much more in this wide-ranging, exclusive interview.
Basketball Insiders: Making the decision to walk away from the NBA couldn’t have been easy. You left a lot of money on the table and that was your career at that point. I know you’ve always had other interests, but how hard was that decision to make and how long did you grapple with it?
Larry Sanders: “Because I started playing basketball late, I had other interests before that. I love basketball and the competition and the comradery and all of that. But, at the same time, I feel like basketball took a lot away from me too. It limited me in a lot of ways. And I’ve been an artist my whole life. I loved drawing. I wanted to be an oceanographer. I’ve skateboarded for the majority of my life. I always had this artistic and rebellious way about me, and it clashed with the NBA culture. It really did. I got to the point where I realized that the NBA is a machine. It’s going to keep running, with or without you. If it can keep running without Allen Iverson – Allen Iverson! – then it’s definitely not worried about me. I knew that, and I also knew they really didn’t have the time to get to know me, to understand me and who I am. And look, I totally understand that. I get that. But I just felt like I had to put myself in a better position in life, to feel more fulfilled. At the end of the day, I’m left with myself, my loved ones and the life I made. I wanted to be someone who was proud of their story. It was always about staying true to myself. I didn’t want to lose myself and who I was for anything. No amount of money. Nothing.”
Basketball Insiders: How much do you miss basketball? You mentioned that you love the game and once you’re in that culture, it’s hard to just completely remove yourself from it. Do you watch games and still play at all?
Larry Sanders: “Oh, I do miss it. I have season tickets for the Los Angeles Lakers and I love watching and dissecting the game. I mean, I love this game. I really do. I love to play it, and I do still play a lot here in L.A. But there were some things about it, some situations, that I didn’t love. But I feel like I’m in a much better place right now and I’m equipped to be able to put myself in that situation again.”
Basketball Insiders: That’s great to hear, because your well-being was my biggest concern. When you walked away, you made comments about working on yourself as a person and needing time to sort things out since you were dealing with anxiety and depression. How are you doing?
Larry Sanders: “It’s been going great, man. I think that’s just the process of life. I had to take that time for my development, to develop into the type of man that I need to be. That time [to work on yourself] isn’t really given to us, but there’s a lot of value in making some time for yourself and I hope other people can find the time to do that too. Some people never do that or can’t do that, and that just saddens me. Stepping out of the NBA schedule and doing that was good for me, I’m very happy now.
“And I’m happy for everyone still in the NBA having success. I see what’s about to happen with the salary cap rising, and I’m so happy because those guys deserve it. For what they do out there, risking their bodies, they deserve it. I risked my body; I got my orbital [bones] blown out and temporarily lost my eyesight. Because those guys are taking a risk every time they step on the court, I’m glad they’re going to get some more money for what they’re doing.”
Basketball Insiders: You mentioned you’re in a better place, which leads to the big question that everyone is asking. Do you see yourself making an NBA comeback anytime soon?
Larry Sanders: “I could see myself coming back to the NBA and… I mean, I’ll just leave it at that. I can’t say too much. (laughs) I can see myself coming back there.”
Basketball Insiders: Your name gets mentioned in rumors whenever a team needs a big man or is looking to make a free agency signing. Have teams been calling you or your camp to express interest?
Larry Sanders: “I’ll say this: I understand who I am as a player and I know what I can bring to any team. Now that I’ve gotten the chance to watch a lot of basketball, I just know what I would do on that court. Even from an effort standpoint, I know I can [play harder than a lot of players]. With the kind of player that I am, I just don’t see a team that couldn’t use my services. But I will say, I think it would have to be a very good fit for the both of us. And I think it goes outside of what’s happening on the court – there has to be a connection there. Maybe I’m asking for too much. (laughs) But I just won’t go back to the situation I was in before.” Editors Note: Larry agreed to play with VCU’s alumni team in The Basketball Tournament, which has a $2 million prize and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Basketball Insiders: In the meantime, you’ve started an art management company where you work with a variety of artists and put out some of your own work (including a rap track called Black Mercedes). What made you decide to start that and how is it going?
Larry Sanders: “It’s been going well. It started because when I was an artist, I didn’t have much creative freedom or creative nourishment. I felt kind of trapped and I wanted to create a place where I could give other artists the resources they need and where they don’t have to feel trapped. I didn’t want them to feel limited by anything. And there are artists who don’t even own their art, and I felt like that was a huge problem. I wanted our artists to own their art, be able to display it freely and choose exactly what they wanted to do with their work. It was a shift [away from basketball], but it was just a calling for me, honestly. It’s been going great. I’ve been working with some artists for the last eight months, developing them, shooting videos for them and providing space for them. This is my first time doing this, so it’s been a great learning experience. I have the right intentions, and now I’m learning about the structure and all of that. Now, we’re at the point with the company where we have a photographer, business partners, artists and me. We’ve had artists come through our system and end up in a better situation, which is great. That’s what we want. That’s all I want for them. A lot of these people are starving artists – some are living out of their cars – and we’re not asking anything from them. We just want to use our resources to help them and I want to put my name by them to co-sign them. It’s just awesome and it’s a great, great feeling to see these guys flourish. It’s like I’m freeing myself doing this.”
Basketball Insiders: Speaking of freedom, I’ve always said that the life of an NBA player is more difficult than outsiders see. There are a lot of sacrifices – from the rigorous schedule, to the loneliness since you’re away from your loved ones, to all of the rules, to the physical and mental exhaustion. Yes, NBA players make a ton of money, but there are a lot of difficult things to deal with too. Do you think there are misconceptions about the NBA lifestyle and that people don’t fully understand what it’s like?
Larry Sanders: “Yeah, but as long as those people are seeing it from the outside looking in, there will always be misconceptions. It’s like filtering something through a net, you’re never going to get the real thing, the raw thing. It’s hard to understand unless you’re there actually experiencing it. But life is life. A great friend of mine told me a great phrase: ‘The top isn’t that bright and the bottom isn’t that dark.’ I do think that people are starting to understand that NBA players are people too. They can step back and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a normal guy.’ People forget that because of certain depictions. And a lot of them are choices that we didn’t get to make. I don’t think humans get to make many choices in society. I was born only 27 years ago so I’m still developing and trying to grow, but it seems like people don’t have too many choices when it comes to the world around them. I think I directly experienced that. I was everything that everyone thought I was, but I was also none of it at the same time. Everyone tries to put you in categories and label you and, honestly, dumb you down.
“I stepped into the basketball culture later than most people. I started playing organized basketball when I was 15 or 16 years old. That’s when I really started to experience the whole culture of basketball, and I fell in love with it. I loved playing the game and having a team, but it was also such a shock. AAU was a huge shock. I only played one year of AAU, but it was a huge shock seeing the manipulation and what players had become accustomed to because those things had just become the norm. They allowed these crazy things into their lives, but me, who was almost stepping into adulthood, was like, ‘No, this doesn’t feel good.’ That was a challenge.
“Then everything happened so fast. I had no aspirations of playing in college, but in that one year in AAU I broke out, so suddenly a bunch of mid-major schools are looking at me. I chose VCU because it was an arts school – they were like 16th in the nation at the time when it came to their arts program and engineering and what not. Then, from there, I started to make leaps and bounds because I had a great coach in Anthony Grant, who was excellent for my development. Then things kept moving fast. I was seventh or eighth in the nation in blocks in my freshman year. Then, in my sophomore year, I had Eric Maynor with me and he’s one of the best teammates that I ever had. I always viewed him as a teammate and basically a coach too. I think anyone who has ever played with him can say that about Eric. He was there in Oklahoma City in the beginning when it was Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and if you talk to those guys right now, they’ll tell you how significant he was to that team. Man, I love Eric. He kept us in the gym, he kept us working hard and he’s just a different kind of person. So he pushed me and made me better. Then I was drafted by Milwaukee and had Scott Skiles in my life, and everyone knows he’s a hard-nosed coach, but he got me so disciplined on defense. He turned me into a defensive animal! And it was because he didn’t let me make mistakes, because I got screamed at for every mistake I made! (laughs) I may not have responded well to all of the personal stuff, but if you had a system and a certain way of doing things, I was all about it. ‘Let’s do it!’ And if I’m doing something wrong, I want to know! He would let me know, so I was blessed to have him. Then I had Larry Drew, and then I had Jason Kidd.
“I always had great people around me throughout my basketball career. I was truly blessed because they were all so significant and each one helped me take the next step up and get better. Every year, there was a such a significant person that would become part of my life and help me so much. I still talk to Anthony Grant, who is now in Oklahoma City as an assistant. I still talk to Shaka Smart. These are my friends and have helped me in life just as much as basketball. It’s just awesome to have those people around me and I’m very thankful for that.”
A Few Good Free Agents Left
David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.
The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.
A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.
For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.
Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.
He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.
Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.
Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.
He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.
The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.
He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.
During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.
With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.
NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.
With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.
“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”
Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.
“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”
In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.
“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.
“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”
One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.
“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”
Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.
“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”
The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.
“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”
With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.
NBA Opening Night Storylines
Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.
The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.
Rejoice, hoop heads.
Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.
With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.
As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?
Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.
Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.
And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.
The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.
But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.
While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.
By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.
Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.
Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.
Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.
And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.
Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.
Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.
This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?
Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.
Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.
While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.
Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?
After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.
“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”
It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.
That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.
Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.
With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.