The Milwaukee Bucks are having a disastrous season, despite an 18-16 record and a 4.5 game lead on the seventh seed in the playoff race.
Coaching changes (Scott Skiles‘ departure), player turmoil (Brandon Jennings‘ restricted free-agent status, Monta Ellis‘ unrestricted free agent status), player signings not working out (Ersan Ilyasova) and even possible front-office change (general manager John Hammond is on the last year of his contract) are things that all Milwaukee fans are thinking about.
What appeared to be a bright future ahead — building around Jennings and Andrew Bogut back in 2009-10 — was cut short by a series of bad moves and deals (extending John Salmons, trading for Corey Maggette, trading for Stephen Jackson, signing Drew Gooden to a long-term extension) that have left the team with little talent to show for.
Because of this, people seem to overlook what is possibly the beginning of a great career — hopefully with the Bucks — for Larry Sanders. Sanders has produced way over his head compared to his first two seasons — both by the eye test and the numbers. He’s one of the (if not the) biggest reason why Milwaukee is 18-16 right now.
Sanders was drafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University as an athletic and physically gifted big man. He was, however, considered to be a project despite being drafted at 22. And big men drafted after the top tagged as “projects” don’t necessarily have a good track record.
The list of failures are too long and too painful remember but the list of success in the past 10 years can be counted in a couple of hands — Andrew Bynum, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, DeAndre Jordan, JaVale McGee and Andris Biedrins (for a couple of seasons) are just a few of the ones that immediately come to mind. But the list of project big men that didn’t pan out are long and exhaustive — Mouhamed Sene, Stromile Swift, Byron Mullens, Spencer Hawes, Primoz Brezec, DeSegana Diop are but a few of them.
So the odds were not on Sanders’ side. But low and behold, in his third season, Sanders is breaking out of his shell and becoming such a force for Milwaukee — how does he do it?
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Sanders was always going to be long. But in the NBA, just being long doesn’t cut it. And despite his length, Sanders was consistently pushed and constantly caught out of position because he lacked upper- and lower-body strength. He was also too eager to jump on blocks. His length and his vertical allowed him to average three blocks and 4.3 blocks per 36 minutes but his overeagerness and lack of body strength contributed heavily to his 4.8 fouls per game and 7.4 (!) fouls per 36 minutes in his first two seasons.
But Sanders entered this season noticeably bulkier and stronger. As such, Sanders is playing more minutes than ever before. Despite averaging 5.4 fouls/36 minutes, Sanders is playing 24.8 minutes/game (which is 10 more minutes/game than last year). As such, his defensive presence is felt for longer stretches. According to 82games.com, Milwaukee is 10.7 points better when he is on the court. This has allowed Milwaukee to post an 18-16 record. They are doing this primarily because they are the sixth-best defensive team in the league.
Because Sanders can finally hold his position in the post, he can finally use his long arms and standing reach to disrupt drives to the rim and post shots. For the season, Sanders is allowing post players to shoot just 25.5 percent off the post. That’s a staggering number that will surely rank among the NBA’s elite. His superior quickness also allows him to stay in front of some perimeter players. Couple that with his length and what we get is a superior isolation defender. In isolation situations, Sanders allows players to shoot just 22.2 percent and allows a score (including free throws) on just 17.4 percent of possession.
Of course, a better body isn’t the only thing that’s needed to be a good defender. He’s also understood the importance of proper spacing in defense and the difference between challenging and blocking a shot (one is the more important statistic). He’s more selective on when he leaves his feet and uses his length effectively to cover the speed when he has to guard perimeter players. Add all this up and what you get is an elite pick-and-roll defender. He’s ranked fourth-best in the league when defending the roll man, allowing just 0.5 points/possession.
Two of those play types — pick-and-roll and postups — represent a huge chunk of most teams’ playbooks and tendencies.
Finally, Sanders registers a defensive regularized adjusted plus/minus — which is basically a refined plus/minus statistic — of +4.21. That’s right there with known defensive anchors like Kevin Garnett (+5.5), Dwight Howard (+4.21), Marc Gasol (+4.69) and Noah (+4.24). That’s some very good company.
Rebounding and Tenacity
He’s also added a tenacity that was not seen from him before. 10/20/15 is a number that’s associated with how good a big man is at rebounding. It’s a representation of a good rebounding big man’s rebounding percentage — offensive, defensive and total.
In his first two seasons, Sanders was a horrible rebounder. He registered way below 10/20/15 — 8/16/12 as a rookie and 10/17/14 as a sophomore. Those are numbers that are way below average. And usually, rebounding numbers are one of the most consistent numbers among all box score statistics (i.e. if you’re a good rebounder, you’ll probably be always good. If you’re not, you’re probably always not be).
Those numbers don’t necessarily inspire confidence that he’ll get better. But Sanders has upped his activity level this season and has pushed his rebounding percentages from horrible (or below average) to great. That’s a giant leap! He’s moved now to a rebounding percentage of 11/26/18.5 - numbers that will surely rank among the best. For someone who did not any signs of becoming even an average rebounder, suddenly becoming an excellent rebounder is surely a sign of improvement.
Shot Selection is Everything
One other reason why Sanders could not stay on the court was his offensive production — he was a complete negative on the offensive side for his rookie and sophomore season when he registered an offensive rating (ORtg) of minus-16 and minus-15 (from league average), respectively, in his first two seasons.
This season? He is currently at minus-1 (which is a 14-point improvement from his previous season). So coupled with his defensive impact, Sanders is also now at leas adequate on offense. How did he do this?
There’s been a lot of studies regarding the correlation between shot selection and offensive rating. What’s widely accepted as the most efficient shot in basketball are either at-the-rim shots and three-point shots — as both yield (historically) the most points per shot. Sanders is currently shooting 3.9 shots around the rim — which is almost two attempts more than his previous number. Sanders has moved closer and closer to the rim. His first season highlighted the fact that he liked taking midrange shots as 51.8 percent of his total shot attempts came from 10 to 23 feet. He’s cut that down to 24.7 percent in his sophomore season and an even lower number of 20.1 percent in his breakout season.
He’s understood that if he wants to stay on the court, he needs to cut down on those midrange shots and instead focus on attacking the rim. Because of this newfound conviction for attacking the rim, Sanders scores 1.19 points/possession on rolls (12th in the league), 1.09 points/possession on cuts (88th in the league) and 1.05 points/possession on offensive rebounds (53rd in the league). Playing alongside a big man like Ilyasova (who can space the floor) has been such a big boon for Sanders.
Sanders has taken a giant leap in both the offensive side — where he’s modified his mode of attack to fit more his strengths — and his defensive side — where his better understanding of defensive spacing and pace has allowed him to become an even better defender. If he can continue this pace through out the season, then the Most Improved Player award should be his to lose.
The Most Improved Award has been a difficult award to judge since it encompasses a broad range of what defines “most improved.” Stars leaping to superstar status (like James Harden) is a hard transition to make, despite what people seem to think. However, the hardest thing to do is to jump from “nobody” to a “top defensive big.” This is also a gargantuan leap. And it can be argued that those players are more deserving of the award since they were the ones who actually exhibited “improved” skills instead of maintaining skills for longer stretches. Sanders certainly fits into that category.
Heck, Larry Sanders might even spark the comeback of “Fear the Deer”.
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