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The Rise of Larry Sanders in Milwaukee
Posted By Alex Kennedy On April 14, 2013 @ 4:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
Entering the 2012-13 season, Larry Sanders was buried on the Milwaukee Bucks’ depth chart. He opened the season on the bench, competing for minutes against Samuel Dalembert, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh, John Henson and Joel Przybilla among others.
It wasn’t until Sanders recorded a triple-double (10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks) off of the bench against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 30 and then broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s franchise record with 22 blocks over a three-game span (as a reserve) that the Bucks realized he was ready for a bigger role.
The following week, the 24-year-old earned the starting center job and he has been great ever since. In fact, Sanders has been so good that he’s in the running for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. Since becoming a starter, Sanders has averaged 10.3 points, 10 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 28.5 minutes.
Sanders is averaging the second-most blocks per game, behind only Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, he has the highest block percentage (7.6 percent) in the league and the highest blocks per 48 minutes among starters. Not only has he improved as a shot blocker, he has reduced his foul rate by over 2.5 fouls per 36 minutes. He has also improved dramatically as a rebounder. Sanders’ total rebound percentage (18.7 percent) is 10th-best in the NBA and he’s averaging the 12th-most rebounds per game. When Sanders is on the floor, the Bucks are the fourth-best defense in the league with a defensive rating of 99.0.
This has been a breakout year for Sanders, who is looking like one of the best up-and-coming big men in the game. He is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks, efficiency rating, field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage. In his first two years in the league, Sanders had just one double-double. This year, he has achieved this feat 24 times.
“I would say it’s been a really good season,” Sanders told HOOPSWORLD. “I didn’t think it was going to turn out this way, but I feel like I worked really hard over the summer. I took care of a lot of things off the court and it’s good to see everything working itself out.”
“I guess it was just developing a lot of pro habits, turning into a professional, taking care of business on the court and taking care of business off the court,” Sanders added. “I’m staying on top of myself, dieting, working out and things like that. I think I kind of got misconstrued during the lockout. The lockout affected me a little bit, you know, having all of that free time and not knowing what to do with it. But I think I utilized my time this past summer and this year I’ve just focused on trying to be better.”
When Sanders recorded the triple-double back in late November, that’s when his confidence soared and his production increased.
“I think when I had a triple-double early in the season, that was kind of big for my confidence,” Sanders said. “It’s a goal that I never would have set for myself because I never would have thought it was reachable at this level. But I just got there by playing and hustling. That made me really feel like I could play in this league.”
In the months that followed, others took notice as well. During this year’s MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland.com and Eric Weiss of Sports Aptitude presented their research on interior defense in the NBA.
Their paper looked at which players are the best at defending the five feet around the basket. That area is the “most important tactical area” for offenses since it’s where the highest field goal percentage occurs. On average, NBA players shoot above 60 percent within five feet of the basket. Goldsberry and Weiss wanted to determine which players were the most effective at limiting opponents in that area.
The study found that Sanders is the NBA’s best interior defender. Against Sanders, opponents make just 38 percent of close-range shots. The study also introduced a new stat called proximal field goal percentage, which found that opposing players shoot just 34.9 percent when attempting a shot within five feet of Sanders. That’s the lowest proximal field goal percentage of any frontcourt player.
The paper stated that: “Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders is one of the most effective interior defenders in the league; opponents struggle to score when he is near the basket. … Due to his outstanding performance in both case studies, we conclude by suggesting Larry Sanders is the best interior defender in the NBA.”
When told about the research, Sanders’ eyes widened. He had heard that his name came up at the conference, but he didn’t know all of the details. After hearing the numbers, he couldn’t help but smile. The kid who was overlooked entering the season is now making the most of his opportunity and getting the recognition he deserves. With that said, he isn’t complacent. Now that Sanders has had a taste of success, he’s hungry for more. It’s safe to say that Sanders’ best basketball is still ahead of him.
“I’m going to keep the formula the same,” Sanders said. “I’m just going to keep working hard and getting better. I want to improve my game, every area I can. I’m just going to keep my mindset the same and see how my progression goes. My focus is just on trying to get better.”
It’s a very real possibility that Sanders wins either Defensive Player of the Year or Most Improved Player. When asked about possibly winning these awards, Sanders says he would be honored. However, he’s incredibly down to earth so he follows this up by saying he never imagined that he’d be in the NBA, much less be considered for awards like Defensive Player of the Year or Most Improved Player.
Sanders is also excited about the future in Milwaukee. The Bucks have clinched a playoff spot and he couldn’t be happier with the team. Not only did they draft him and give him this opportunity, they’ve also been incredibly supportive of their young center. For proof, look no further than LarryBlocks.com, which was launched to help Sanders win one of the previously mentioned awards. Sanders says that the Bucks can be “really good” in the near future and after watching the huge strides that the young center has made this season, the same can certainly be said about him.
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