A year ago, Sadiel Rojas wondered if he'd play another basketball game. He had a broken back and a long rehab ahead.
A year later, Rojas is the Mad Ants' iron man bringing energy into the team's first playoff berth.
“It's a big blessing,” Rojas said. “I told coach I'm happy to be 50 games strong. I played all 50 games. Coming off a broken back, you would think I'd probably sit out some games. But I played all 50 and I was excited to be the only player to do that this year.”
Rojas will be on the floor as usual when the Ants open their best-of-three first-round playoff series against the Santa Cruz Warriors at 7:30 tonight in Memorial Coliseum.
Rojas wasn't guaranteed another season with the Ants because of his injury and changes in the team.
Ants coach Duane Ticknor cleaned house of past players and questionable attitudes as he molded this team. The only remaining connections to Mad Ants of the past are veteran guard Ron Howard (expected back from injury tonight) and Rojas.
Rojas had to prove what he could do coming off his severe injury.
“I sat on the plane with him (Sunday) flying home and talked about that,” Ticknor said. “I said, 'Think about where you were a year ago and where you are today. You should be proud.' He put time in in the offseason and played with same energy level he had a year ago, but his skill level is so much better.
“He can shoot well, play D without fouling and he works just as hard today as he did last summer. If he keeps doing that, he has a great future.”
Rojas' numbers aren't earth-shattering on the surface. He averages 8.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, but he's putting those up in about 23 minutes per game. Project those over a full game and you've got a double-double.
The number that can't be measured is the level of energy he brings when he enters the game.
Ants point guard Anthony Harris said he would give Rojas the “warrior award” for his play in the playoff-clinching win at Sioux Falls. Rojas came in late in the second half and helped thwart a Sioux Falls run.
“He came up with a lot of big plays that kept balls alive,” Harris said. “Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, defensive stops during that stretch – that's what we get from him night in and night out.”
Rojas started only two games during the regular season. Ticknor said Rojas is one of those players who plays better coming off the bench. Ticknor often turns to him with a simple instruction – “Sadi, we need some energy” – and sends him into the game.
Rojas, a 6-foot-4 second-year player out of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, is similar in approach to players that Ticknor brought in to bolster the roster. He's younger, but built with the toughness that exudes from Anthony Richardson, Tommy Smith, Chris Porter, Brandon Wallace and Terrance Thomas.
Ticknor's goal was to assemble a team that will always bring toughness and hard work, and that's what he achieved.
Rojas proved to the coach he fit in right away and has improved his shooting and understanding of the pro game, Ticknor said.
“I knew my role coming in is to bring the energy, rebound, score easy buckets and play defense and I can do that with any four guys on the court,” Rojas said. “I feel I can make those four guys better without scoring and just by doing the little things. My role never really changes and I try to do that night in and night out.”
Ticknor said Rojas playing in every game is a credit to the player's toughness.
“That's fantastic, especially when you consider the way he plays,” Ticknor said. “He's flying all over the place, diving all over the floor. I don't think I've ever coached anybody on the floor more than him. To be able to play through injuries is a tribute to him. His toughness has won us a lot of basketball games and that rubs off on his teammates. That's how you win at this level.”