ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — The Milwaukee Bucks had their defensive anchor back on the practice floor Thursday, as center Larry Sanders practiced with the team for the first time after missing nearly two months with a thumb injury.
Bucks coach Larry Drew said there’s "no doubt" Sanders will play Friday in Brooklyn after his return to practice went well. Whether or not he returns to the starting lineup has yet to be determined, but the big man was working with the first unit Thursday.
"It’s good to have him back," Drew said. "He was really good today. The energy, he was real bouncy. Defensively he was very active and energized."
Sanders has played in just three games this season because of a torn ligament in his right thumb, which was suffered in an altercation at a Milwaukee nightclub in the early hours of Nov. 3. He underwent surgery on Nov. 11 and recently began working out on his own with team staff.
But Thursday’s practice was the true test of where he was physically with the thumb and with his conditioning. Sanders will play with a glove-like joint stabilizer on his thumb that’s covered with a wrap for the foreseeable future but says catching and holding a basketball is no problem.
"I couldn’t wait for it," Sanders said of his return. "There was a little bit of discomfort just getting used to it.
"Just to be back around the guys and to be back in this atmosphere playing, I can’t really describe it. It feels great."
There was an added energy in the training center Thursday with Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova back practicing. Drew feels adding a key player back into the mix can certainly provide a jolt to a struggling team.
"His game is predicated on energy," Drew said. "When he plays with the energy and bounciness that he has, it provides a lot for our team. Certainly he had it today.
"He has to be as happy to be out there with us as we are to have him back. We were in early this morning going over some things with him and I could see how excited he was to be back. We are just as excited."
Because the injury was to his thumb and not anything on his lower half, Sanders has been able to keep his conditioning up while sitting out. He acknowledged he expects to have low wind for a little bit, but Drew was surprised with the shape Sanders was in Thursday.
His individual workouts included a lot of agility and conditioning work because the hard cast on his hand and wrist prevented him from doing much with a basketball other than footwork and finishing around the basket.
"He actually got up and down the floor pretty well today, better than I expected," Drew said. "I thought he would be really gasping for air. I thought he did a good job getting up and down the floor, but it is totally different when you get in a game. We’ll have to keep an eye on him."
Sanders hopes he will be able to provide a boost to a Bucks team struggling to close out games. He feels simply having more healthy bodies will allow players that extra time resting on the bench to be fresher late in games.
He worked on the same unit as Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Ilyasova on Thursday and is excited to be thrown into the mix with some of the young players who have been seeing extended minutes.
John Henson has taken a step forward in his second year and has played quite a bit with Sanders out. Drew now has many combination options inside, including playing Sanders and Henson together.
"(Henson’s) getting a lot of experience out there," Sanders said. "You can see it around the basket offensively. I can take some pressure off of him defensively. We’re looking forward to playing together."
Sanders hasn’t played in a game since the home opener on Nov. 2. He has been forced to live with his decision ever since, including watching his team struggle from the sidelines for 25 games.
"It’s bad," Sanders said. "Whether they are winning and losing you are feeling it. I was just waiting for the day I could get back out there and the day is coming."
The time off has also allowed Sanders to reflect on what he called a learning experience and make changes in his life to hopefully prevent a similar incident from occurring again.
"Definitely a lot of learning," Sanders said. "I feel like I’ve recommitted myself to the game and other areas of my life. Things have been ironed out a little bit more. I’m looking forward to being out there with a clear mind and helping my team win."
Ilyasova back: It appears giving Ilyasova’s right ankle a bit of a break has paid off, as he was back practicing Thursday and is likely to play against the Nets on Friday.
The Bucks shut Ilyasova down last Thursday and he’s missed Milwaukee’s last three games due to lingering issues from his sprained right ankle suffered in the preseason opener on Oct. 8.
"Boy, he looked better than I’ve seen in a long time as far as his movement," Drew said. "He moved really well. He didn’t show any signs of the ankle bothering him. He was very bouncy as well. Let’s hope he can stay that way."
That’s a big difference from a week ago when Ilyasova could barely walk after playing 49 minutes in a double-overtime loss to New York on Dec. 18.
After averaging 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 44.1 percent on 3-pointers last year, Ilyasova is at 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game this season and is 8-for-37 from beyond the arc. Drew credited most of the struggles to Ilyasova just not looking right because of the ankle pain.
It appears as if seven days off may have been just what he needed.
"It looks like it has," Drew said. "I’m sure we’ll have to see how he is after today, but if I had to judge him on what he had today as far as his movement is concerned, I would say the break did him a lot of good."
Only Zaza Pachulia and Carlos Delfino are expected to miss the Brooklyn game, giving the Bucks 13 healthy bodies for just the third game this season. Milwaukee has had 13 or more players available only on Nov. 23 against Charlotte and Nov. 25 in Detroit.
"Last week Monday and Tuesday were two days that we really wanted to utilize practice time and we didn’t have enough bodies to practice so we had to do some things a little bit differently," Drew said. "Today we were able to practice and do some 5-on-5 stuff. It’s nice to have bodies to be able to do that."