ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Players who don’t want the ball in their hands in late-game situations are often criticized.
He lacks the killer instinct. He’s afraid of failure.
Neither of those two statements will ever be used to describe Larry Sanders, but he’d much rather have the ball in his opponent’s hands late in the game.
Well, Sanders doesn’t really want it in another team’s hands. The NBA’s leader in blocked shots per game prefers it in the fifth row of the stands after he seals a victory with a rejection.
“Block a shot, no hesitation,” Sanders said when asked if he’d rather win the game with a swat or hit the game winning shot.
Last season, that question would have had minimal merit. Sanders wouldn’t have been on the court. Now, in his third season since the Bucks selected him 15th overall in the 2010 draft, Sanders is a shot-blocking machine who can do no wrong in the eyes of Milwaukee fans. Even when he commits a foul, the crowd at the BMO Harris Bradley Center breaks into a “Larry, Larry, Larry” chant.
“His progress has been amazing,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “I’ve told people before: I’ve never seen anything like it. From where he was this past summer to where he is now, it’s a monumental leap.
“Larry is growing and maturing. If you think back to where Larry was this time last year and where he is today as a basketball player, it’s amazing. I know the other side of Larry, and the way he’s grown as a man, is impressive also.”
In a season in which he had to either break out or get lost in the NBA shuffle, Sanders is showing why the Bucks thought so highly of him coming out of Virginia Commonwealth.
Sanders has blocked a staggering 9.5 percent of the shots opponents have taken with him on the floor.
Not only does Sanders – who is on pace to shatter Milwaukee’s single-season record for blocks held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elmore Smith at 238 – lead the NBA at 3.22 blocks per game, he does it in far fewer minutes (24.7 per game) than his closest competitors. Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, who is second in blocks per game at 2.81, plays eight more minutes per game. The Lakers’ Dwight Howard plays 12 more minutes per game, and Chicago’s Joakim Noah plays 14 more minutes per game than Sanders.
Among the top 10 shot blockers in the NBA, only Denver’s JaVale McGee plays fewer minutes than Sanders.
So why isn’t Sanders playing more? Well, while improved, he hasn’t quite figured out how to block all those shots without getting into foul trouble.
Sanders also leads the NBA with 3.72 fouls per game, and only Indiana’s Roy Hibbert has more total fouls than Sanders. It’s something he continues to work on, but as a shot blocker, it comes with the territory. The Bucks can live with his aggressive fouls, but the bad ones away from the ball or out of frustration are the ones that end up costing him time on the floor.
Prior to this season, Sanders would pick up a foul, and his emotions in disputing the call would either take him out of the game mentally or lead him to yet another foul. Before he departed the team, former Bucks coach Scott Skiles said he saw Sanders’ bad fouls down from three or four a game to one or two.
When he’s able to play big minutes, the results are spectacular. In a recent run that saw Sanders block four or more shots in five games – the second-longest streak in team history – he was on the floor for more than 25 minutes in three of the five games.
“You have to pick your spots because if you come across anyone’s body it is a foul,” said Sanders, who is also averaging a career-high 7.9 points and 8.4 rebounds. “You have to think a lot. As long as you are defensive minded, it works in your favor.
“You have to grow into it. It’s a big part of the game, a huge part. Way more than half is mental. Get your mental mindset on the defensive end and if you are alert, it helps you.”
It has been no secret that part of the reason Sanders hasn’t played substantial minutes was because of fouls, and Boylan said recently that Sanders’ physical condition had been a problem, too.
Sanders used to get fatigued easier, leading to more mental lapses and lazy fouls. Now he’s in better shape and able to use his incredibly athletic skill set. There isn’t a center in the league who can beat him down the floor.
Early in camp, Boylan’s jaw dropped when he watched Sanders run 400 meters.
“Larry’s natural gifts, he can run the floor as fast as anybody in the league,” Boylan said. “I would bet on him against anybody. When he uses that speed to cover ground it makes a big difference. It’s amazing to see him run.”
As he continues to rack up the blocks, Sanders thinks his reputation will change with the officials. Instead of being known as a fouler, he feels he will be looked at more favorably.
“I think they appreciate me working hard,” Sanders said. “I think that might help them be a little light on the whistles.”
Though it is impossible to tell if his reputation as a fouler has shifted at all in the minds of officials, Sanders definitely has a reputation with his opponents.
“Anybody who starts to penetrate to the basket, Larry is attacking that penetration,” Boylan said. “People are looking for him now. They are driving in there and they are looking for him. Even if he doesn’t block the shot, he’s a factor in there and people are hesitant around the hoop.”
Pistons coach Lawrence Frank admitted Sanders wasn’t on many team’s radars last season when preparing for the Bucks. Now, he’s near the top of the game plan, and Frank believes he’s one of the most improved players in the league.
“I think he’s a major factor,” Frank said. “If he doesn’t block it, he’s definitely in people’s heads.
“I still think he’s a high foul guy. You may just get fouls in different ways. He’s carving out a niche and reputation.”
Sanders has always considered himself a shot blocker because it was one of the first things he did on a basketball court that came naturally to him.
Wondering if that talent would carry over to the NBA, Sanders didn’t really start having the mindset of a shot blocker until his third NBA start his rookie season against Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets.
In that game, Sanders blocked eight shots, including three of Anthony’s. As a rookie, blocking shots of star players mattered more to him because of how he viewed them. Part of his maturation was learning that a block on a shot taken by the last man on the bench helps the team just as much as blocking a star’s shot.
“Now (it doesn’t matter). Once it leaves the hand, it’s anybody’s game,” Sanders said.
There still are moments where Sanders fails to keep his emotions in check or commits a bad foul, but he’s starting to figure it out. And he’s still only 24 years old, which is a scary thought for opponents.
“A lot of guys challenge me,” Sanders said. “They don’t back down, this is the NBA. I have to be on top of my game.”
When he is, that means so much more to the Bucks than it did even one season ago.