University of Toledo junior guard Jaelan Sanford is used to playing on the big stage.
During his senior season at Reitz High School in Evansville, Ind., Sanford said every game he played in was sold out. That 2014-15 season, Sanford led the Panthers to the Indiana Class 4A state title game, where his team fell 91-90 in overtime to eventual Purdue star and NBA player Caleb Swanigan and Homestead High School in front of 12,862 fans.
Toledo's Jaelan Sanford drives to the basket during a game at Ball State. Sanford is 7th in the MAC in scoring at 16.4 points per game.
Blade/Kurt Steiss Enlarge
“Nothing rattles him,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “He’s played in big games on big stages. Playing for a state championship in Indiana, it doesn’t get any bigger than that in high school basketball. It just doesn’t. He shines in those moments.”
Sanford admits he still misses playing in high school gyms packed to capacity in his basketball-crazed home state, but that experience has helped him carve out a nice career at Toledo.
At Toledo, Sanford has emerged as an ironman of sorts, starting all 94 games since he stepped foot on campus and leading the team in minutes played the last two seasons.
“Ever since freshman year, coach has had a lot of confidence in me,” Sanford said. “Starting every game, I have a lot of experience. My teammates depend on me a lot, and I like that. Freshman year, my expectations were to come in and play as hard as I can and work hard. I was rewarded by getting to start every game.”
Sanford came to Toledo as part of the 2015 recruiting class that included Nate Navigato, Luke Knapke, and Taylor Adway.
“Coming in freshman year and getting playing time definitely helped him,” Navigato said. “Getting minutes as a freshman just increases your confidence, especially when coach has confidence in you. He just gets more and more confident with each year. He’s starting every game and getting all those minutes, and we all trust him.”
Each season at Toledo, Sanford has increased his scoring. He scored 8.2 points per game as a freshman, 13.6 per game as a sophomore, and ranks seventh in the Mid-American Conference this season with 16.4 per game.
This season, Sanford is in the top 15 in the conference in 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made per game. He is second in the conference in free-throw percentage at 85.3 percent, fourth in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.8, and third in minutes per game at 34.6.
Sanford spent his freshman season playing off the ball as a shooting guard, moved to point guard his sophomore year, and is playing more off the ball again this season with the addition of freshman point guard Marreon Jackson.
“It was great for me to run the one [point guard],” Sanford said. “Now I can run the one and the two, and I think it has helped my game out a lot. I can be more of a threat on the court at either spot. Having Marreon run the one now, it opens up a lot for me when I don’t always have to have the ball. I can come off screens and do other things, but at the same time, any time I need the ball, I can go get it and run the one.”
Sanford said he continues to try to refine his game and learn from others.
“I’ve gotten a lot better defensively,” Sanford said. “I’ve always emphasized defense. Also being able to score in any way out on the court and learning from other guys I’ve played with and just being an all-around better player.”
Kowalczyk believes Sanford, with his hard work and natural ability, has made himself into one of the top players in the conference.
“He’s had a very good career thus far,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s a guy who can stretch a defense and play off the dribble. He gets fouled and makes his free throws. Defensively, he has really been a consistent defender and a guy that in my opinion is one of the better players in our league.”
Toledo senior Tre’Shaun Fletcher has taken on the role of vocal leader with this year’s team. Sanford, who is the most experienced player on the team, leads more by example.
Kowalczyk says the next step in Sanford’s growth is to develop as a vocal leader.
“His leadership role right now is that he has an unbelievable work ethic and a tremendous attention to detail,” Kowalczyk said. “Not only does he have the work ethic, he produces. The next area where he has to do a good job for us next year is being much more vocal. Right now that is not his comfort level. I’ve talked to him a lot lately that he needs to take over for Tre’Shaun in that capacity and become a vocal leader because we are going to need that next year.”
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