Starting to play pretty well: Larry Sanders

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Sanders has been a bit more of a problem for opponents lately. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Early 2013-14 season Larry Sanders was no fun. The ! seemed gone from his game, if not from his temper. He followed a blah, but not too troubling (because it was only exhibition) pre-season by failing to play well enough to be in near the end of games through four games in the regular season. He followed that with the club incident heard ’round the NBA. He returned and seemed to pick up more technical fouls than rebounds.

Rough start to the season before his $44 million extension is due to kick in. But, finally, there are some signs that we’re starting to see the Larry Sanders we fell in love with last season, even if his ! has been revoked.

Thanks in part to a career night in Denver on Wednesday (25 points, 15 rebounds), Sanders has averaged 13.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and two blocks over his past five games.

More specifically, it’s how he’s done it that’s really been encouraging. In his last four games, Sanders is 5-6 from the field in transition and has drawn three fouls. In the 18 games before that, he was 5-9 and had drawn four fouls. He’s running more and his teammates are finding him more. Only one assisted basket has been courtesy of a pass from Giannis Antetokounmpo, but something Larry Drew said about the nimble forward who’s always pushing the ball in transition after his big game against the Knicks made me think of Sanders.

“One thing that I said about Giannis after seeing him this summer was, this kid, once he gets in the open court, he’ll find you,” Drew said. “It’s just a matter of people running with him. And not just running, but we have to race the lanes. We gotta get people ahead of him so he can look to throw it ahead and look to break the defense down, because he’s a very willing passer.”

Sanders has been ready to run with him or anyone else lately, most memorably on this pass from Giannis. Drew has stressed recently, as he did when the team was caught in a losing battle with injury and inconsistency earlier this season, the importance of controlling the tempo and rhythm of games. He still wants to run off misses, but he doesn’t necessarily want the team to look for a quick shot for the sake of getting off a quick shot.

“In us pushing it more, we want to look for those early opportunities,” he said recently. “I will always stress and emphasize looking for the early opportunities. Not necessarily to push it to take the shot, but it’s pushing it to keep the pressure on the defense. But we have to be a team that can dictate the rhythm of the game. We don’t want to get into a quick shoot contest with a team. We have to control the rhythm as much as we can.”

With bigs like Sanders and John Henson the Bucks have rare players who can block a shot on one end and beat players down the court on the other.

But the opportunities created when he beats opponents down the court hasn’t been the only area where Sanders has improved of late. As noted above, in his past five games he’s averaged 10.4 rebounds, which is surely a relief to everyone in the Bucks organization. In a dismal Bucks January, he averaged only 6.8 boards per game. He had a terrible pre-season and didn’t seem like his old self throughout most of this season as a rebounder. Looking back now, it seems fair to trace his struggles to a combination of injury recovery, getting his timing back and just generally reacquainting himself with the basketball court after time off, but earlier this season as panic was setting in, it didn’t seem crazy to worry about him as a rebounder.

In his first two seasons in the league, he was at best, an average rebounder. His physical prowess gives him the profile of a great rebounder, but there have been many players to come through the NBA over the years everyone assumed would gobble up missed shots who failed to actually do so. He was a great rebounder last pre-season and all of last season, but his struggles early on gave many, myself included, flashbacks to his first two seasons.

The return of his rebounding is one good sign, but another positive one is his shot-selection. Selective memory had me thinking that Sanders, especially early on this season, was launching too many jumpers. He’s trying to prove himself, my brain insisted. It was wrong, as it usually is.

Larry Sanders – Percentage of Shots Per Location
Location 2014 2013 2012 2011
Shots Within 8 Feet 84.28% 77.52% 72.83% 46.64%
Shots Within 8-16 Feet 11.31% 12.39% 10.87% 25.00%
Shots Within 16-24 Feet 3.78% 9.75% 15.71% 28.35%
Shots From 24 Feet + 0.63% 0.34% 0.54% 0.00%

Seeing that chart makes me wonder if Sanders really thought he came into this league as more of a stretch four. Whatever fantasies he had as a rookie were clearly squashed by Scott Skiles and company. Sanders now knows his role and this season has continued the positive trend of taking more shots closer to the hoop. His shooting percentage in that area hasn’t quite cooperated (down to 52.99% after making 56.5% last season), but given the small sample size and, once again, his physical profile, it seems safe to assume he’ll come around as a finisher at some point. Especially if he keeps beating other bigs down the court for open looks like he’s done the past few games.

And about those technical fouls that have plagued him throughout his career like that mysterious illness that has kept O.J. Mayo on the bench for what seems like an eternity of late? Those are still an issue. There’s no way to get around that. He’s picked up six technicals in 21 games, good for more than a quarter of a tech per game, the highest per game total he’s averaged in his career. I mean, it’s crazy that I even just had to break down TECHNICAL FOULS ON A PER GAME LEVEL. Even when things have gone well, for example in his career game on Wednesday, he’s ran into trouble (first quarter technical).

So, we have yet to see the same sort of temper-control growth out of Larry Sanders as we’ve seen in shot-control growth. Maybe that day is coming. Maybe it isn’t. What we’ve learned about Larry Sanders through four years in Milwaukee is that anything can be expected. He’s shown growth. He’s shown immaturity. He’s been a hero and a villain. Basically, he’s been a guy that’s gone from 22-years-old to 25-years-old in the public eye.

His growth isn’t done yet. There’s still plenty of time for him to end it with a !.

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  1. It’s so hard not to get too high or too low about our players, especially our young guys. It’s great to see Larry back, and I’m hoping he’s getting good help on and off the court.
    Still waiting to see him and John performing together at their best, mixed in with the bulk of Zaza and Miroslav, all of them guarding the basket, crashing the boards, and making selective shots on offense.

  2. Nice example of temper containment at Denver…Larry was fouled on back2back trips down the floor-no call from ref!!
    Drew argued for Sanders,teammates did the right thing-settled him down. End results 25points 15boards.
    Just keep growing mentally….reign in the rage-Sanders is worthy of our patience. Never hear Larry talking poo-poo about the City of Milwaukee either,likes being a BUCK.