For a player drafted largely for his athleticism and defensive skills, Larry Sanders hasn’t been shy about letting shots fly in his first season as an NBA player. His own on offense and the opponents on defense.
Earlier this season after a home loss to the Heat, Scott Skiles summed up Sanders early season exploits. “Every time he caught it he wanted to score, he took a couple crazy shots, but in general he’s getting a lot better and we’ll keep putting him out there.”
But those “crazy shots” weren’t a rookie’s desperate attempt to earn playing time. That’s just the way Sanders has always been able to positively impact games.
“I want to win, I want to help my team win,” Sanders said recently. “Coming from a school where I contributed points wise and in high school too, I feel like that’s how I want to help my team win. But Coach Skiles has shown me other ways I can help my team win. Screening, blocking shots, things like that.”
Sanders hasn’t suddenly stopped taking shots though. He’s still shooting, but more often when the opportunity presents itself, rather than every time he touches the ball. Despite a low overall shooting percentage of just 42%, he’s actually been pretty good of late. Sanders has made 21 of 41 shots (51.2%) in the month of January, his patience on display much more often.
“It definitely is,” Sanders said when asked if patience was a difficult thing to learn. “You gotta know which shots are yours, know how to get your shots. There’s a lot that goes into getting the right shots, and being in the right position. I think I’m getting better at it. Sometimes I force it, I find myself forcing shots and rushing things. But I would say compared to where I started, I’m much, much better.”
According to Synergy Sports, Sanders has averaged .8 points per possession on 30 post up opportunities this season, good for 75th in the league. For a player who said at the start of the season he was more more comfortable facing up, that’s quick progress. One shot Sanders has been surprisingly effective at is a turnaround fadeaway jumper. Not something a player as raw as Sanders traditionally thrives at. But he discovered he had a feel for it and has worked at it.
“I actually started shooting that shot in summer league. I shot it a couple times and it started falling. So I said, ‘I should add this to my game.’ I worked on it and now, that’s my shot.”
Sanders sudden improvements offensively haven’t left him forgetting about defense though. He’s second on the Bucks and the only player besides Andrew Bogut under 100 with a 98 defensive rating. Defense was where Sanders made his mark initially as a Buck, blocking eight shots in a game earlier this season against the Denver Nuggets. Sanders block numbers are still impressive and that’s been a consistent for him month to month. Despite averaging just 14.5 minutes per game this season, Sanders has managed to block an average of 1.4 shots per game. An eight block game can go a long ways towards distorting statistics, but he’s been steady.
Sliding back and forth between power forward and center, he’s played over 10 minutes five times in the moth of January and has blocked three shots in four of those games. He’s blocked 7.8% of opponents two-point shot attempts while he’s been on the court this season, an impressive number that bests teammate and the league’s leading shot-blocker Bogut by 1.7%. Had he played enough minutes to qualify, that number would best league leader Darko Milicic by .5%.
A very good shot-blocker in college, he’s had to change his shot-blocking game on the pro level. In college, Sanders was able to hang out by the hoop and wait for the offense to come towards him so he could send them back the other way. But the NBA’s defensive three second rule has altered that approach.
“They call it really tight,” he said. “In college you can sit back in there and wait for them. You always gotta clear out and get back in. I think it’s not as difficult as I thought it was gonna be though.”
That’s kind of often the story about the NBA with players as athletically gifted and eager to learn as Sanders. The league is tough, no question about that, but more than half the battle is figuring out the mental side of things. As he grows more comfortable with his role on the Bucks and where he’s supposed to be offensively and defensively, the better he’ll get.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Then become a fan on Facebook (in the sidebar).