Highly Unlikely - Part II

Bucks first-round pick Sanders reviews dramatic emergence

By Truman Reed
07/06/10

Skiles
As Larry Sanders the basketball player continued to grow, so too did his frame.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

One of the first things that set Larry Sanders the basketball player apart from others was the hoop he scored for the opposing team during his first organized game.

Fortunately for Sanders, his coaches and his teammates, they would all discover what a virtue patience can be when they collectively gave him a second chance.

Sanders' wrong-way misadventure came during his sophomore season at Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High School. Once he was steered in the right direction, he began a transformation into the Milwaukee Bucks' first-round selection in the 2010 National Basketball Association Draft.

That transformation didn't happen overnight; it has taken more than five years. And during that time, Sanders had to pass a crash course in basketball because he took up the game at a much later age than most. He had to grasp and apply in about five years what most players do in a dozen or more.

As Larry Sanders the basketball player continued to grow, so too did his frame. He reached 6 feet, 6 inches by the end of his junior year, when he helped his team reach Florida's Class 5A state semifinals, then shot up to 6-9 as a senior.

By then Sanders' coach, Kareem Rodriguez, has notified Tony Pujols, a friend who was an assistant coach at Virginia Commonweath University, about Sanders. That gave the VCU program what proved to be a valuable head start, because Sanders didn't appear on most college recruiters' radar until his senior season at Port St. Lucie.

Seth Willmot, one of Sanders' high school teammates, remembers the beginnings of Sanders' quantum leap as a basketball player.

"I remember sitting in a high school classroom with Larry and telling him that if he went to the community college where I went, we'd be all right," Willmot said. "That we could be roommates.

"Then all of a sudden, he was taking college visits and that was, like, unbelievable. I came back from summer vacation and I hadn't seen him. One of our teachers was asking, `College visits? Larry's been going on college visits?' and I was like, `Yeah. Really.'"

Sanders' senior season was a breakthough.

He averaged 19.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 5.9 blocks - collecting 25 points and 23 rebounds in one game and 46 points in another - in carrying Port St. Lucie" Jaguars to a 20-8 record and the District 13-5A championship. He was chosen first team all-state.

Sanders committed to VCU just as other Division-I college programs were becoming interested in him. He liked the idea of playing for then-VCU coach Anthony Grant, who had helped develop such big men as Al Horford and Joakim Noah during his years as an assistant at the University of Florida.

Upon his arrival on the VCU campus in Richmond, Va., Sanders' wingspan was measured at 7 feet, 7 inches - a width matched by a select few NBA players. During his three seasons with the Rams, he grew to 6-11.

Sanders earned 16.6 minutes per game as a freshman. He averaged 4.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks and shot 50.4 percent from the field.

A year later, he upped his numbers to 26.6 minutes, 11.3 points and 8.6 boards to go with 2.7 blocks. He was named to the all-Colonial Athletic Association second team and was voted CAA Defensive Player of the Year. He began to surface as an NBA draft prospect and the Rams made the NCAA Tournament.

In his junior season, Sanders averaged 26.8 mpg, 14.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 2.5 bpg and posted a .534 field-goal percentage. He repeated as CAA Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-team all-CAA choice. During the course of his junior campaign, over 180 NBA scouts attended VCU games to check him out.

The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the teams that had been monitoring Sanders' progress.

Assistant General Manager Jeff Weltman, Director of Scouting Billy McKinney and Director of Player Personnel Dave Babcock had all seen him play.

"Larry was a guy who kind of got on the board because of Eric Maynor (the former VCU star guard who was selected by the Utah Jazz in the 2009 NBA Draft and later dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder)," Bucks General Manager John Hammond said. "In preparation for the draft a year ago, we were watching Eric Maynor and you're seeing this big guy running up and down the floor and blocking shots and doing the things he could do, and you ask, `Who is that guy? He looks like he could be very good.'

"That put him on the map a little bit from a scouting standpoint. We went back and followed up like I'm sure every other team in the NBA did."

Sanders' predraft workout in Milwaukee was a positive one for both team and prospect.

Hammond was asked if Sanders' workout swayed the Bucks toward drafting him.

"I do think there's some truth to that," Hammond said. That was a little bit of a turntale last year for Brandon (Jennings) when he came in and had a great workout against a top tier of point guards. That really helped us in our decision-making process. I think a lot of that same thing was true with Larry.

"Guys did the job. They went out and watched him play. I think we had a good handle for who and what he was. But when he came in and worked out, we saw how good his feet were and how well he ran the floor and all the abilities that he had. I think the workout might have tipped it a little bit for us."

Sanders said he came away from his Milwaukee workout with a different impression than he did from others.

"The workout was really good," Sanders said. "It was in the middle of all my workouts, and I had 14.

"There was definitely a vibe. When I got off the plane and got in the city, I was like, `Man, I like it here. I really like it here.' It's not too big, it's traditional - I saw that just from looking at the buildings. I called my best friend and told him, `I like it here. You're going to like it here.' He was like, `It freezes there,' and I told him, `Man, you're going to like it here.' I called my agent and said the same thing."

Sanders watched the 2010 NBA Draft on June 24 from his home with family members and friends, who included Maynor and Willmot.

Following the 10th pick, he and his closest friends moved away from the crowd into a more secluded room to continue to monitor the draft.

"After the 14th pick, we were sitting there and Eric called it," Sanders said. "He said, `This is you. This is you at 15.' I was like, `Man, be quiet.' But he was like, `This is you. You're not going past 15.' And sure enough, my name was called.

"My friends jumped around. I just put my head down. I dropped my head. I couldn't believe it. I smiled and just walked back into the room with my family and hugged everybody. I had to find my mom. It was great."

Hammond remembered some tense moments at Bucks headquarters leading up to the selection.

`I think it was Billy McKinney who said that, in this draft, Larry was like a 1,000-pound gorilla in the room that nobody wanted to talk about," Hammond said. "Nobody wanted to act like he was in there. I think that was him in this draft. A lot of people were quiet on him. We were one of those teams. We were obviously the most quiet on him, because we were hoping he'd get to us.

"I knew, right in our range, our fear was he was going to go before us. But we knew that if he didn't go at 15, we were going to miss him. We talked about how far we could move back and still get him. We wondered if we could get to 18, 21 or 22, something like that, if we'd have gotten multiple picks, would he still be there? And we just thought that wasn't going to happen. He was going to be gone. So I'll tell you right now, the Milwaukee Bucks are very happy to have Larry Sanders."

Sanders was bewildered when he officially became a first-round NBA draft choice. He spoke about the experience when he met the Milwaukee media the day after the draft.

"I don't even know that I believed it at first," Sanders said. "I had to pinch myself. In my mind, the first thing I thought was, `My dream is here.' I thought back very quickly about the past month or two, all the workouts I did, all the traveling, and I just kept the mind-set of trying to stay positive. And now it all worked out and came together, like a puzzle."

Sanders talked about his journey, too - the one that essentially began with the basket he scored for the wrong team.

"Looking back on it, it's amazing," he said. "It's been a really long journey and a lot of hard work that went by really fast. Back then, I never would have seen myself in this position. I just want to work and learn. I still have the same mind-set. It's amazing where I am right now and where I was when I started."