Last December when things seemed to be at their worst for the Milwaukee Bucks, there was still some hope. After all, they had a superstar point guard in the making, right? How could the season be a total wash when Brandon Jennings had fallen into their laps, revived the franchise and turned Milwaukee into a basketball town again?
So maybe things haven’t quite worked out the way we expected since last December with regard to Jennings. Inconsistent, not superstar, is the word most often associated with him, but that’s the thing about a young players thriving. When a young player is playing well, especially one that appears to have even more hiding behind what he’s shown already, it can change a perception about a struggling team instantly. No longer is a team going nowhere, suddenly the team may be struggling, but they are developing too.
That’s what’s getting me through this current stretch of Bucks basketball. Sure, Corey Maggette and John Salmons have contracts that are going to be difficult to move if they can’t recapture their old steady forms and Drew Gooden has the salary of a starter with a game that may be better suited for the second unit. And the Bucks are having more difficulties scoring points than an average high school varsity team, but at least we’ve finally seen some signs of development of a young player in a season full of regression from younger Bucks.
A thanks goes out to you Larry Sanders.
When we last discussed the Bucks wiry backup big, he’d “broken out” against the Lakers. Naturally, by broken out I mean he played four minutes and blocked two shots. When ranking breakout games by Bucks rookies, that one probably fell short Jennings’ 55-point game, but who doesn’t like to grasp at straws when a team is struggling early in a season? Since that game though, Sanders has actually began to slowly work his way into the Bucks rotation with a series of strong efforts.
He’s scored 8.7 points per game and grabbed 6.7 rebounds and blocked 1.7 shots in 26.3 minutes over the past three games. More than the numbers though, Sanders has looked like he is beginning to understand why he is on an NBA court more often than not, no small feat for a guy who’s only been playing basketball for about six years. The adjustments he’s made and growth he’s experienced mentally over the two months that have passed since training camp have played no small part in his ability to perform on the court.
“It’s hard to move fast when the game is going so fast,” Sanders said, “but when it slows down for you, you can pick your speed up.”
And he’s certainly been able to do that. He’s gone from processing where he is supposed to be constantly on defense and offense, to reacting to the game at a much quicker pace. Now when Sanders catches the ball on the perimeter, he’s not so hesitant to let fly his surprisingly smooth looking 17-foot jumper. It’s telling that he’s connected on three 16-23 foot jumpers over his past three games and each of them has come off an assist. That has a lot to do with Sanders being confident in himself and ready to fire when he’s caught the ball. His face-up game is currently miles ahead of a post game that’s at best awkward and at worst cringe inducing.
Defense is still his primary asset though.
Sanders was one of the finest shot blockers in college through his three years at Virginia Commonwealth and while he largely blocked shots there simply by standing around the hoop, he’s gotten better and better in his experience over the past month at coming off the ball to block shots. He rejected an Antawn Jamison 3-pointer against the Cavs and came off the ball to block a Tyrus Thomas shot into the crowd, causing a shot-clock violation Saturday against the Bobcats. While he initially seemed lost as a rebounder and still has his moments, a missed box-out leading to a Tayshaun Prince tip-in against the Pistons comes to mind, he’s certainly improved as a rebounder. Scott Skiles has noticed the improvements in that area especially.
“It’s gotten much better,” Skiles said of Sanders defensive rebounding. “He was just kind of standing and watching. He’s gotten much more reactive.”
And while things have gone well over the past few games for Sanders, this is still a guy with a below average PER (11.7) at a position that generally seems to fare well in that category. He has a ways to go, both mentally and physically, especially if you heed the words of Skiles.
“He’s still really scratching the surface, not only with his game, but he doesn’t really know a whole lot that’s going on out there yet,” Skiles said. “But I’ve said it many times, we’ve seen him in practice and he’s making a lot of progress and as long as he does well, we’ll keep putting him out there. He’s earned some more minutes. He’s noticeably better than he was when he got here in the summer. I’m excited for him.”
So are the rest of us. On an underachieving 6-10 Bucks squad, it’s fun to have something to be excited about again.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com . Follow him on Twitter.