Larry Sanders takes another positive step in his process, but what’s next remains unclear

CANTON, Ohio — Nobody in the organization knows what to expect when it comes to Larry Sanders.

On Tuesday night, hours before Sanders made his NBA comeback official by playing nearly two minutes in garbage time against the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin admitted as much.

“I guess we’ll see,” Griffin said. “I mean, it’s really a function of how quickly things get picked up.”

After Sanders’ debut with the Canton Charge on Saturday, on assignment as part of the team’s big-picture plan to get him re-acclimated to professional basketball, lower the expectations and get him in game shape after more than two years away, the next step remains unclear.

When asked whether the Cavaliers provided instructions on Sanders’ workload, Canton Charge head coach Nate Reinking declined to answer, calling the plans “classified” and asking for the next question.

The original plan was to keep Sanders in Canton while the Cavs are on the West Coast, in the midst of a four-game road trip.

When talking about the subject on Tuesday, Griffin said Sanders “may play” a road game with the Charge, who won their home finale Saturday against Windy City.

Canton has a handful of practice days on the horizon, which should help Sanders continue to work his way back. The Charge’s next game is Thursday against the Maine Red Claws, one night before the Cavaliers cap their roadie against the Charlotte Hornets. 

“I have no idea yet. It’s minute-by-minute and day-by-day in this league,” Reinking said when asked whether Sanders will go on the road with Canton. “We will go forward when we find out.”

What the Cavs — and Sanders — do know is that what he’s trying to do isn’t easy. That’s why this comeback attempt is shrouded in mystery.

What’s the protocol for handling a player trying to return to the highest level of basketball? What are the percentages that it even happens? Is there enough time before the NBA playoffs to get Sanders to a level where he can actually play a few minutes here or there and provide some kind of resistance on defense?

“I just started,” Sanders said. “It’s a process and you just have to invest in it, trust it and I’ve been on every side of the spectrum. I’ve been through D-League to fouling out of games in the summer to having a double-double. It’s a process and I’m used to it.”

That’s a point the Cavs have been trying to make since signing Sanders. They’ve been preaching patience. Members of the organization are trying to focus on the positives, with every small step being important.

Tuesday night against the Pistons, it was about introducing him to the crowd, allowing him to have a special moment, especially after all the issues he needed to overcome just to get back to a place mentally and spiritually where he felt ready to attempt this comeback.

Saturday was the next step. Making his D-League debut this season, Sanders scored 2 points on 0-of-2 from the field and 2-of-4 from the free-throw line. He added one rebound and three blocks while committing five fouls in about 12 minutes. He was clearly rusty and on the floor while Windy City made its comeback. But, again, the focus at this point should be on the positives. 

“There’s a presence to him,” Reinking said. “”You can just feel it. A veteran presence. He handled the paint well. He hasn’t played in a while and you can tell a little bit with his timing. But other than that, I thought he was great.”

That’s where Sanders is. Being back on a basketball court professionally is an achievement. Just looking the part, displaying the tantalizing size and athleticism is a favorable performance. There are many steps remaining. 

“Get my legs under me. Hopefully help this team win games and get back into basketball shape,” Sanders said of his goals with the D-League affiliate. “Just defensive timing off a bit and trying to get into position, but it will come.”

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. No one really knows. How could they? Given the circumstances, however, taking a wait-and-see approach seems to be best.

After all, that’s what the Cavs and Sanders are doing.

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