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Establishing His Own Identity
The following article first appeared in issue No. 2 of the Flames Illustrated game program for the 2012-13 basketball season, which was available at the Vines Center between Dec. 13-28. John Caleb Sanders enters Monday's matchup against Western Carolina second on the team in scoring, averaging 9.8 ppg.
How to describe John Caleb Sanders' hardwood game?
"I would say," the junior began before trailing off, rubbing the back of his head in concentration. "I mean, that's kind of difficult."
It's a question that initially might leave Flames fans scratching their heads, too.
After all, Sanders has spent his Liberty basketball career thus far branded largely as the younger brother of Jesse Sanders, the prolific floor general who graduated last year with the school's all-time assist record and numerous awards and honors.
Fans can be forgiven if John Caleb's contributions were a little overshadowed by Jesse's success. But while it's only natural to compare and contrast the two, the Vines Center faithful would be remiss to limit John Caleb to his older brother's legacy and abilities. This season, he is embracing the opportunity to develop his own individual, if tricky to articulate, identity on the court.
As he continued to search for words, John Caleb's teammates jumped in with suggestions of their own.
"CP3," forward Andrew Smith offered with a wink.
"What? No," John Caleb protested, shaking his head furiously, "I'm not."
"Scorer!" Tomasz Gielo cut in, throwing up the three goggles with a grin.
They're offered light-heartedly, but the descriptions nod to John Caleb's trademark skill for generating baskets.
"I am a shooter and a scorer," he ceded humbly.
The shooting guard is coming off a sophomore year in which he averaged 11.6 points per game and led the team in three-point field goals, sinking a season total of 61 from downtown. His 18 points in the season opener at 19th-ranked Texas A&M and career-high 20 points posted against Montreat also speak to John Caleb's capabilities with the ball.
Father Tom Sanders, who coached both Jesse and John Caleb throughout high school, remarked, "John Caleb can score the ball in probably more ways from more places on the court than any player I've ever coached."
"He is a high-energy scorer who gets baskets in multiple ways," Liberty head coach Dale Layer said in agreement.
Not to say that John Caleb's game is confined to individual offensive skill.
He spoke of his love for the transition game, as well as his goal of drawing defenders in the paint to create more shots for teammates.
Defensively, Vines faithful can expect to see him expanding on last season's 23 steals and stepping up with relentless, gritty hustle that unavoidably echoes his older brother's style of play.
"He is a fierce competitor and fearless in many respects," Layer commented, "He is able to create shots for other people well. His defense has greatly improved, his understanding of the game overall has improved and I think he's evolving into a more complete player."
A key challenge this season's young squad faces is the need for strong leadership, the aspect that perhaps draws more brother-to-brother comparisons than any other.
As an upperclassmen, John Caleb acknowledges the void Jesse and other graduating seniors left behind and his responsibility to fill it, but he made it clear that, like his game on the court, he approaches the situation distinctively.
"I'm different than Jesse," John Caleb stated firmly. "I'm definitely quieter. Jesse is a very, I guess you could say ‘autocratic' leader. He's up in your face, he's telling you what to do, he has dominance and it is very clear that he's the leader. It's good, but that's not my style. When I need to be vocal, I try to be vocal. But I also like to meet guys one-on-one and talk about certain things that need talking about. It's a gradual thing, you know? You don't just all of a sudden become a leader."
"Yes, he's probably a little less external and less of an extrovert than Jesse," Tom remarked. But he was quick to point to Jesse's similar departure from the brothers' high school team four years prior as a reference.
"He did take over the leadership of our team the last two years he played, and he did a good job of it," Tom said matter-of-factly.
Flames fans have no cause to doubt that John Caleb will do the same this season.
"I think he still kind of looks over his shoulder just to see if one of his older brothers is around," Layer chuckled before continuing. "But now that he knows that's not the case, I think he's blossoming in that area. He's assumed a greater leadership role, and he's a natural leader in many respects."
In fact, the head coach extended the theme of John Caleb's growth in separation to his game as a whole.
"I think Jesse being here was a good thing for him, and now I think it's probably a good thing that he can do what he does on his own," Layer confirmed.
As much as he loves his brother and as effective they were as teammates, John Caleb couldn't help but agree.
"It's different for sure. I've been playing with Jesse for 15 years, so playing without him is different," John Caleb relayed thoughtfully.
But the opportunity to try and make my own name?
"It's been nice," he noted.
In every area of the game, John Caleb's message remains constant. He's prepared to take on leadership of a new era of Flames basketball. In all areas, including offense, defense and team leadership, he's eager for the chance to come into his own.
Ryley Rush is a Liberty University freshman and is a freelance writer for Liberty Athletics