CLEVELAND — Larry Sanders knew when he walked away from the NBA early in the 2014-15 season that he would eventually return.
That eventuality is now reality as the 7-foot-1, 230-pound center was with the Cavaliers on Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena and made his Cleveland debut against the Detroit Pistons, though he’s not expected to play at the NBA level again until late this month.
“I knew I needed space,” said Sanders, who earlier in his career was twice suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, had several run-ins with the law and was treated for anxiety and depression.
“I needed to focus on myself. When I was away, I knew I’d come back. Now’s that time.”
Sanders signed Monday for the pro-rated veteran minimum of $1.1 million, which comes out to $208,000, and the Cavs hold an option on his contract for next season.
The 28-year-old will also be with the Cavs for a Thursday home game against Utah, but is not expected to play. The plan is for the center to make his debut for the team’s NBA Development League affiliate, the Canton Charge, on Saturday.
Sanders will remain with Canton while the Cavs go on a four-game road trip that starts Saturday and concludes March 24, meaning the earliest he would play in another NBA game would be March 25 vs. Washington.
At that point, the Cavs will leave their options open. Sanders could continue to play for the Charge while also coming north to join the parent club for some practices at Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence. He could also begin to see spot action with the Cavs, who don’t have a true center on their roster.
“He wanted to go down to the D-League for a while to try and get his legs and find some rhythm,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “That’s big.”
Griffin emphasized the Cavs aren’t banking heavily on Sanders and viewed the signing as a positive long-term addition — “There wasn’t any one person we thought would be a better answer in the short term than he would be in the long term,” the GM said — but didn’t rule out the long-armed and athletic center making an impact in the 2017 playoffs.
“We are not in a situation where we need him to save us,” Griffin said. “We need to get what we can from him.”
That’s why Cleveland, which has strong leaders in Lue and four-time league MVP LeBron James as well as quality character in its locker room, was willing to take a chance on Sanders.
“There’s the potential for some rim protection there,” Griffin said, adding, “The fit could be very good. We’ll see where it goes from here.”
Griffin is even more confident Sanders won’t detract from the team’s chemistry because the Cavs are made up primarily of experienced, confident and intelligent players.
“They know this doesn’t complete us,” he said of the rest of the players. “This gives us the opportunity to do something unique.”
In a best-case scenario, Sanders will get back into playing shape with the Charge, play a handful of regular-season games with the Cavs and be ready to contribute as Cleveland begins defense of its NBA championship.
The Virginia Commonwealth product’s presence will allow Lue to employ a big lineup if necessary — Sanders could play with center Tristan Thompson or power forward Kevin Love — and the coach already has multiple options when it comes to going small.
“He’s very excited, very thankful to be here,” Lue said. “Everybody deserves a second chance. ... He was one of the great shot-blockers when he played.”
Sanders, who said he had lost his desire to play when he walked away from the game two-plus years ago, is optimistic about his return.
“I feel confident about coming back to the game,” he said. “The Cavs and LeBron supported me in my decision. ... I’m ecstatic I get to play with these guys.
“I feel like I came back a little more mature, a little more steady, a little more ready to perform,” he added. “I had to do my work. I had to get my body in shape, my mind in shape.”
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