It kind of seems like the Milwaukee Bucks have three different versions of the same player. Ekpe Udoh, Larry Sanders and John Henson all qualify as long, athletic defensive minded players with offensive games that are under construction and all three of them are members of thee Bucks’ rotation.
Even as a third year player (though he is 25 years old), Udoh is the veteran of the group and he is the one with the best basketball instincts; watch Udoh defend the pick-and-roll and you’re likely to see a textbook example of how to muzzle the NBA’s staple action. As a rookie, Henson is just the youngster trying to figure everything out. As Scott Skiles plays around with Ersan Illyasova’s role, Henson has been promoted to the starting line-up, though he is still only getting reserve-type minutes. Sanders is a little bit of a mixture of Udoh and Henson in the sense that he often shows flashes of being a defensive wunderkind in the mold of Udoh and at other times it’s apparent that he still has a lot to learn.
The boom or bust quality that Sanders, who is now in his third season with the Bucks, has is not uncommon for players of his ilk. Some nights Sanders will block a handful of shots, blow up a couple of pick-and-rolls and power down some dunks that rile up the Bradley Center. Other nights Sanders will be overaggressive in the paint, lose his positioning on the glass, brick his free throws and even throw a tantrum. The Bucks are willing to put up with all of the bad that comes with the good because of how good Sanders projects to be once he’s grown out of the infant phase that all NBA big men face. And though he’s still got a ways to go before he can be counted on for effective production on a night-to-night basis, Sanders’ performance in Milwaukee’s last two games gives us a glimpse about how special his future may be.
Sanders didn’t start on Friday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves but he played so well the first time he stepped on the floor that Skiles couldn’t bring himself to take Sanders off the floor. Just a minute after checking into the game, Sanders promptly blocked a Kevin Love lay-up attempt. The ball went straight to Nikola Pekovic, though, for what should been an easy putback against an out of place defense. But not against Sanders. After blocking Love, Sanders turned his hips toward Pekovic and proceeded to block him three straight times before Sanders closed the defensive possession with a rebound off a Josh Howard miss.
There are only a few players in the league that have the athleticism and the timing to pull off something like that. Love and Pekovic are two of the toughest inside scorers in the league but Sanders combated their strength and size advantages with his uncanny wingspan and shotblocking acumen. Sanders’ block party was just getting started then and he wound up blocking 10 shots in that game. Even though two of those blocks were on Greg Stiemsma, it was still a mighty impressive milestone not only because it tied him with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s for the franchise for rejections in a game, but also because his 10 swats helped him secure his first career triple-double.
Even if it came in a loss, following up your first career triple-double is a pretty tough task, but Sanders may have been ever better last night against the Boston Celtics. Henson and Udoh would start this game but once again Sanders came off the bench and earned himself the crunchtime minutes with his play early on. Sanders came in the game and grabbed four rebounds on his first five defensive possessions, blocked a pair of shots and got himself an offensive rebound/putback. Sanders had an ever more significant impact on the game in the fourth quarter, scoring nine points on 4-of-4 shooting while grabbing four rebounds, including the game-clinching board and a free throw that forced Boston to go for three on their final possession. Sanders’ final line was 18 points, 16 rebounds (four offensive) and five blocks, yet another gem from a player who has yet to even fathom what his potential might be.
Sanders’ impactful start to the season hints at what will likely be a career year, one that should end with a defined role for the VCU product. Sanders has never produced above a 13 PER before this year but the early returns on this campaign have him at an 18 PER; it may be early, but that PER is in the same area code of guys like Joakim Noah, DeMarcus Cousins and Al Horford. Dramatic improvements to his true shooting percentage and his rebound rate are responsible for Sanders’ increase in efficiency this season.
Sanders has increased his free throw percentage a bit this season to a still paltry 59% but the real difference is with his overall field goal percentage. Sanders shot 46% from the field last year and he’s up to 57% this season. Sample size may have something to do with such a large increase, but keep in mind that Sanders has taken the majority of his shots at the rim this season. Sanders only shot 57% at the rim last year and he is shooting 66% this year. Such a difference is not unexpected for such an athletic freak, particularly one that is starting to play a bit more under control when in the paint. And if the early returns on Sanders’ mid-range jumper hold even moderately true (he’s shooting 44% from the mid-range after shooting 28% from that distance last season), then Sanders will likely remain one of the most efficient big men in the league.
An 18 PER for Sanders would been absolutely huge for him going forward because that figure doesn’t even take into account his total defensive value. Being an efficient overall player is just icing on the cake when your primary role is as a defender. And Sanders has been a heck of a defender so far this season. Even though blocks aren’t everything (see: Ibaka, Serge), Sanders’ block numbers are still impressive. Sanders ranks fourth in the league in blocked shots per game even though he is only averaging 22.9 minutes per game (the lowet of anybody in the top 10). Once you adjust for minutes played by using blocks per 48 minutes, Sanders leads the league by far with 5.74 swats P48M.
Sanders isn’t just a human eraser, though, he also plays solid defense within his team’s concept. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Sanders is holding his opponents to 32% shooting when guarding them straight up in the post and just 30% shooting in isolation situations. Sanders’ pick-and-roll numbers are also good – guards are shooting just 35% on pick-and-rolls involving his man – though most of that is simply luck. Milwaukee’s primary pick-and-roll coverage is soft with the big man sagging bag towards the foul line to prevent dribble penetration. Such a stragtegy concedes wide open mid-range jumpers and Milwaukee’s opponents just haven’t been hitting them this season. The real value with Sanders in the pick-and-roll, at least when they are in soft coverage, is when he is the secondary big man (the big man not involved in the pick-and-roll) because he’s excellent as a help defender.
When Sanders has been on the floor for the Bucks this season (310 minutes), the Bucks have defended at an elite level, giving up just 95.2 points per 100 possessions, which is a mark that would lead the league in defensive efficiency over the course of a full season. The cavaet is that the Bucks are scoring at a worse rate than the Washington Wizards when Sanders is on the floor. The Bucks aren’t a good offensive team to begin with, so all of the blame doesn’t fall on Sanders, but it is a bit concerning that Milwaukee has such problems scoring the ball with him on the floor.
Aside from becoming a more fluid offensive player, virtually all of his shortcomings have to do with one area of the game: fouls. Sanders leads the league in personal fouls per game with an average of 4.1 a contest – it’s important to note that Sanders only had two fouls against the T’Wolves and Bucks, which is a big reason why he was able to stay on the floor to produce. Sanders has also managed to compile three technical fouls despite playing limited minutes so far and he’s also one of only 11 players to be ejected from a game this season. Sander’s attitude has been called into question a few times since his NBA career began because of some pretty nasty looking scuffles and tirades. He’ll need to clean up his act in that regard if he’s ever going to reach his potential.
It would not surprise me one bit if Sanders had one of those 10 minute-five foul type of games against the New Orleans Hornets on Monday on the heels of two breakout performances. That’s just how the NBA learning curve works for most young players. But over the next few years I think we will start to see these breakout type games become fairly normal for Sanders while the number of those foul-laden stinkers shrinks significantly.