ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Larry Sanders has never been a finished product. He knows it. His coaches know it.
Sanders didn’t join a high school basketball team until his sophomore year, and when he did finally play, his coach had a distinct message for him to take advantage of his special skills.
“My high school coach told me just to run and try to block shots,” Sanders said on Friday. “That’s what my focus was. Blocking shots and the timing just came kind of easy.”
That ease has certainly carried over into his professional career, where Sanders will take part in his third season in the NBA this year with the Bucks. As one of the more athletic big men in the league, Sanders has had no problem doing what his high school coach had asked of him — running and shot blocking — in his first two seasons. But the rest of his game hasn’t been so easy.
And last season, Sanders was forced to step in as a backup center — a position he wasn’t as accustomed to playing. His minutes went down slightly in his second season. Still, his defense was never really the problem.
Now, with so many options in the frontcourt and Sanders’ athletic ability still his calling card, Sanders may still find himself at center this season. It’s something Bucks coach Scott Skiles is considering as big men continue to lobby for playing time throughout training camp.
“It’s definitely conceivable he could, there’s no doubt about that. … Almost anyone can play center nowadays against a lot of teams. There’s other teams that you need a legit center out there. But Larry has improved. He’s gotten better at keeping himself under control. … When he does that, he’s an effective player. He’s a good defender. He’s a good shot-blocker. He can rebound the ball better. And when he plays with energy and changes ends and has a good activity level and keeps it’s simple, he’s a very effective player.”
Sanders spent much of the offseason trying to develop in that way, becoming a more complete player. Specifically, he said, he wanted to improve his pace, which, for the majority of last year, was very on-and-off.
And when Sanders’ pace was off, the rest of his game seemed to tail off last season.
“He commits a couple fouls and gets out of rhythm and he’ll get out of pace and he’ll do something he’s not capable of doing,” Skiles said. “He knows it. He’s worked a lot on it. He had kind of a so-so summer league, but he’s been very good in September. And he’s been very good so far in camp. … There’s absolutely no question he’s gotten better with it.”
That improvement comes at a good time for Sanders, who will fighting plenty of other options for playing time in the frontcourt. With Samuel Dalembert and Joel Pryzbilla as pure centers and power forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden, John Henson, and Ekpe Udoh all fighting for time, Sanders will likely need to take the next step in his game this season to ensure he doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
Sanders will always have his defense, but with the Bucks’ defense looking a little more complete during training camp than it was last season, Sanders says the competition is as intense as its ever been in the frontcourt — something that was missing the last two seasons.
“The competition is something we kind of lacked in the past due to injury and other things,” Sanders said. “It almost was a settling feeling. Now, we don’t have to settle. We get the best out of our product here.”
And although Sanders’ product may not be finished, the time is now to show that it’s complete enough to be a serious contributor in a packed frontcourt.