This is the 13th in a 15-part series running Wednesdays and Fridays profiling each Milwaukee Bucks player leading up to the start of the NBA season.
The summer belonged to Larry Sanders, as Milwaukee’s center parlayed his breakout season into a four-year, $44 million contract extension. Between trying out with the United States national team and appearing all over town with the Bucks, Sanders barely had time to sit back and relax.
Sanders is now faced with the challenge of following up a year in which he burst onto the national scene as one of the best defensive players in the NBA. All the attention he has received has only raised expectations, as Sanders was given the extension with the hope last season was just the tip of the iceberg.
While the new deal doesn’t set in until next season, Sanders will face a pressure unlike any he’s dealt with before. How will one of the most emotional players in the NBA react if things don’t go according to plan early? Only time will tell.
2012-13 stats: 9.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 50.6 FG %, 61.8 FT % in 71 games
2013-14 salary: $3,053,368
Last year: The Bucks had no idea what they were going to get out of Sanders at this time last year. After a rough summer league, Sanders was truly fighting for his job entering his third season in the league.
It didn’t take long for Sanders to force former coach Scott Skiles to keep him on the floor, and he eventually displaced Samuel Dalembert as Milwaukee’s starting center. Sanders was comfortable in his bench role and first opposed the move to the starting five, but eventually became entrenched at the five spot.
If a certain game thrust Sanders into the national spotlight it was Nov. 30 in Minnesota. The Bucks fell to the Timberwolves, but Sanders recorded his first triple-double, blocking 10 shots with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Sanders averaged over 3.0 blocks per game in December, January and February, leading the league in blocked shots for most of the season. Opposing teams eventually adjusted to his presence in the paint and his blocks dipped late in the year, but Sanders still finished second in the NBA to Serge Ibaka at 2.8 blocks per game. While many around the league realized his defensive impact, Sanders was left off both all-defensive teams and finished seventh in the voting for defensive player of the year.
Offensively, Sanders improved as the year went along. He averaged 11.5 points per game in February and April and posted a scoring average of 12.2 points per game in March. Sanders is never going to be a top option on the offensive end, but he began to figure out how to get his points late in the season.
This year: What’s the next step for Sanders? That was a popular question this summer and one that can’t be answered until he hits the floor. The Bucks hope his offensive game will continue to develop while he becomes even more impactful on the defensive end.
Sanders could be held back by his emotions, as his passion often combines with his temper resulting in technical fouls and ejections. He was hit with 14 technical fouls last year, tied for third most in the NBA. Foul trouble is another concern, as frustration fouls piled up and prevented him from staying on the floor at times.
Bucks coach Larry Drew has worked with Sanders on better controlling his emotions, but there’s still work to be done. Sanders has two technical fouls in the preseason, one for arguing with an official and another for running to the opposite end of the floor and slapping the backboard. He feels he found a way to control his emotions at the end of last season and hopes to carry it over into the regular season.
If emotions are in check, Sanders could be the premier defensive center in basketball. His presence on the defensive end is crucial for the Bucks, but Sanders’ leadership is also going to be vital. He’s embraced being the face of the franchise and becoming a leader, something he saw firsthand was an issue last year. Sanders isn’t afraid to speak his mind, but he needs to find the right balance between passion and emotion in order to be respected as a leader. This is a challenge he’s taking seriously, but Sanders is no guarantee.
Nonetheless, the Bucks took a chance on him by locking him up longterm. Now it’s up to Sanders to prove they were right.
From the front office: “It’s about Larry Sanders the player, but it’s also about Larry Sanders the person. With what we’ve just done here, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. Larry and I have talked about that a lot. He wants to embrace that, he welcomes that and he’s looking forward to taking on that challenge.” — Bucks general manager John Hammond