MILWAUKEE – All around him, Larry Sanders had heard the dissecting and determination being made of his upside. He listened to the whispers, everyone using the dreaded word: Potential. After an admitted step back a season ago, he couldn’t shed the label, his future being judged solely by this one word.
Sanders wasn’t sure if there was going to be an NBA season last year, unsure whether he would instead opt to sign overseas as foreign teams expressed heavy interest. And a year before those situations, he had his first child.
There was a different focus to Sanders heading into this season, however, and a far greater realization as to how he can impact the Bucks with his relentless motor and length. Sanders is no longer hastily scanning the stat sheet for his numbers. Now, he has fully embraced the role of bringing energy off the bench and changing the complexion of games with his feistiness, blocks and versatile defense.
In-sync chants came cascading down inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center during the waning seconds of the Milwaukee Bucks' 117-113 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday night: “Larry! Larry! Larry!” Sanders had just stuffed Ryan Anderson’s dunk attempt with 18 seconds left in the game – the game-clinching block and one that saved teammate Ersan Ilyasova, who got beat badly on Anderson’s pump fake and drive. Then, Sanders snatched the rebound off his own block, passed the ball to Brandon Jennings to shoot two free throws due to an intentional foul, and waved his arms up in the air over and over as the chants of his name grew louder.
“I love my fans, love the fans here,” Sanders said in a private moment after the game.
More than anything, Sanders has become beloved among the Milwaukee fan base, basking in his name being poured down from the crowd every time he makes a hustle play – whether it be a block, a dunk or a steal. In all, he added four points, six rebounds and three blocks on Saturday to a breakout season in which he has posted a team-high 19 blocks, 10 more than Samuel Dalembert’s second-best mark, and currently ranks second in the league in blocks per 48 minutes at 4.68.
Still, Sanders’ production shouldn’t be measured mostly by statistics, but rather, his contagious energy and multiple defensive efforts. He is tireless in skying to block shots, and in one sequence in the first half, Sanders even pick-pocketed guard Brian Roberts while defending the pick and roll. In a league where so many are pushing to put up big point totals, Sanders is cognizant of how immense his impact can be each game by filling this gritty role: Being Scott Skiles’ defensive anchor and game-changer off the bench.
“Timing, pace, I worked on those things this summer, and controlling myself in certain situations and finishing plays,” Sanders told RealGM. “I think my mindset being able to focus on that instead of everything else like [scoring] really helped going into this year.”
While everything from games to practices to meetings came at him ferociously last season, it has all slowed down for Sanders so far. Now, the 23-year-old is decisive and sharp offensively, unrelenting and constantly active defensively, and an increased role also doesn’t hurt.
As hard as Sanders trained a summer ago, nothing prepared him – a rookie entering his second season – for the lockout that prevented his presence on the Bucks’ Summer League team and in their practice facility.
“I wasn’t too ready for [last season] yet as a pro, having to take care of my body, taking care of things I needed to,” Sanders said. “But this summer was a lot better. Getting a chance to spend a lot of time in the gym with these guys and summer league definitely helped me.”
People around the league are slowly beginning to take notice. Just last week, Doc Rivers said Sanders is a player every coach in the NBA would want on his team. When told about Rivers’ praise, Sanders smiled and said: “Wow, what a great compliment.”
As long as Sanders’ play continues, he should be a strong candidate for Most Improved Player, an award he acknowledges is part of the broader goal of improving each season.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s the goal,” Sanders said. “Everyone talks about potential – that dangerous word, potential. It gives you something to live up to, but my mindset is never going to change: Just learn as much as I can and then be able to apply that once I get out there on the court.”