MILWAUKEE – Larry Sanders had finally slowed down. But in a heartbeat, it all sped up again.
“Larry, Larry, Larry …”
The opening night crowd at the BMO Harris Bradley Center burst into a spirited chant as the Bucks forward pumped up fans with his hands, pointing in all different directions of the arena as he headed to the bench after fouling out of the game.
Sanders had just completed his finest game as a professional. The Bucks have preached they want him to learn to control his emotions and just play his game. But for a completely harmless moment, Sanders’ emotions came out.
Bucks coach Scott Skiles was asked what he thought of his young forward responding to the crowd.
“Act like you’ve been there before,” Skiles said.
It was just another step in the learning process for Sanders, but who could blame him? He hasn’t been there before. Saturday marked more than his scoring a career-high 17 points. No box score could have showed the leap forward Sanders made as the Bucks improved to 2-0.
He was all over the floor. Hustle plays, thunderous dunks, even some off the dribble. Comparisons to a young Tyson Chandler were thrown around.
The blue-collar Milwaukee crowd appreciates effort. He just was acknowledging and sending appreciation right back at them.
“I heard the chants,” Sanders said. “I love that. I love any time our crowd pumps up our team.”
It wasn’t long ago that Sanders was in danger of becoming the odd man out in the Bucks’ frontcourt rotation. He was suspended for a preseason game for a “conduct issue,” and some feared the talented big man’s emotions would never let him realize his full potential.
With starting center Samuel Dalembert struggling to guard Cleveland’s pick-and-roll Saturday, Skiles turned to Sanders. It became evident quickly that through two games the Bucks are simply a better team with Sanders on the court. So much so that Dalembert played just 58 seconds in the second half.
Everybody knew the 6-foot-11, 235-pounder could block shots, but his ability to catch the ball on the move, take his defender off the dribble and finish around the rim has drastically improved. Ten of his 13 made field goals through two games have been dunks or lay-ups.
“He is becoming an impact player with his energy and some of the blocks and effort plays that he makes,” Skiles said.
Nobody can put their finger on when the game started to slow down for Sanders, nor does anybody know if he’ll continue to play as he has in Milwaukee’s first two games of the season. Skiles even let out Saturday that media often believe there’s an exact moment when a light bulb turns on. There’s certainly not. It’s a process.
“Larry has, basically since coming back in early September, has impacted every practice and every pickup game and every game he’s been in,” Skiles said. “He’s doing a much better job of staying under control and letting the game happen. He’s always going to block shots and now he’s becoming a much better rebounder. And if he can throw in some catches and baskets around the rim, he’s effective.”
Ask Sanders, in his third season after becoming the 15th overall pick in the 2010 draft, what has changed and he’ll give a cliché answer.
“Just working hard,” Sanders said. “I had a good summer, got a chance to spend a lot of time with the team and just working hard and it is carrying over.”
Though cliché, hard work is helping some of Milwaukee’s talented young players start to flash their immense potential. Sanders has combined hard work with maturity.
“The guy has got a lot better,” point guard Brandon Jennings said. “He’s starting to understand the game a bit better. He’s playing his role. He knows what his role is. Come out there play hard, block shots, rebound and score when he has to.”
Monta Ellis gave almost the same evaluation of Sanders as Jennings did.
“More control, better off the move,” Ellis said. “More of him being controlled and settled and making the right decisions. He’s been doing a great job.”
Sanders seems to have figured out the kind of player that he has to be, not only for himself but for his team. The player Sanders has been early on this season is exactly the type of player fans love to root for, love to get behind.
And that, at least for one night, ignited life into a building that so desperately needs it.
“We need to start a tradition here at home,” Sanders said. “We need to get our fans behind us because that’s good momentum. (It’s) something that we’ve been missing a little bit and we need to get it back.”