LAS VEGAS – For a Milwaukee Bucks franchise sputtered in mediocrity, the most refreshing figure, Larry Sanders, isn’t clouded with misleading realities. He knows this must be a comprehensive, astute rebuilding process. Just last year, Sanders had been toiling as a lost player, but he has played himself into the USA Basketball program and now comes out of it wiser after being around some of the best coaching minds.
Sanders doesn’t ponder life as the face of a franchise yet, but he takes failure so personal, takes the Bucks so familial, that he has become it.
He spites the non-playoff years, spites last season’s eighth seed finish, and there are connections within the community and a deep desire to drive the organization into contention. Most of all, Sanders, 24, envisions lasting well beyond this phase for the Bucks, a verbal commitment of sorts before the technical one. Soon, he’ll be the Bucks’ sole focus to sign to a new contract. In Sanders’ mind, he’s already locked in.
“I definitely can spend my career there,” Sanders told RealGM. “Milwaukee adopted me when I got drafted and the people there took me in and showed me nothing but love and support whether I played or not. It’s awesome now to give that back to them, give them something to watch and entertainment.”
Sanders established himself as one of the NBA’s best defensive players a season ago, and turned it into an invitation to Team USA minicamp. U.S. coaches had been impressed with him in practices, and Tom Thibodeau praised that Sanders’ instincts and qualities are essential for winning. After playing through an ankle injury late last season, Sanders rehabilitated into the offseason and will replicate the rehab now, suffering a sprain in a Team USA practice game.
For Sanders, this offseason had been critical in his growth within the locker room, an immense opportunity to stay around the practice facility to train with players he knows will be with him in the future. He then traveled with the Bucks’ summer league team and further trained with them, especially John Henson – who appears groomed to start at power forward alongside Sanders.
At times, the losses have been defeating in the mind, but Sanders has learned to find balance and stability, believing he can’t let disappointment deter him. He’s been working on all parts of his game this offseason – his jumper and hook shot, free throw shooting and defense – and getting his “mind right,” he says, could help decrease foul trouble next season. Yet, Sanders was left sighing over the Bucks’ reputation as a lowly team.
“It is frustrating, but it’s the reality of where we are,” Sanders said. “The only way you can change that is to work toward being somewhere else. You can’t let the frustration of things set in. It’s not going to change where you are and it’s not going to change how people perceive you.
“You have to change perception, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
Practice ended at UNLV’s campus the other day, and Sanders sat in a private moment near the corner of the gym. He had tried to get his face around summer league, his message across about the Bucks as up and comers. Affable and well liked by his teammates at every level, Sanders also is passionate this way. He hates the losing, but he goes about it the way an evolving leader should.
“I want people to think of us as winners, when you think of the Bucks,” Sanders said. “We’re building on our season from last year, keep pushing forward and adding new pieces. We’re tired of being eighth seed, seventh seed, not making the playoffs. It’s time to rebuild – and we’ve already started that process.
“I wanted to show teams here that we’re building on something. We’re starting a tradition. We’ve got young pieces. We’re going to be contending for something big.”
As Brandon Jennings’ free agency continues, even Sanders hasn’t gotten a grasp on his plans. Sanders has wanted to call Jennings to let the point guard know he’d welcome him back. Only, Jennings has left the impression he wants privacy in his decision.
“I know he’s going through his own little cycle right now, his own world,” Sanders said. “If he comes back and we’re able to keep him, I’d love to have him. But if not, I know he’s going to have to do the best thing for his career.”
In the end, Sanders is the one who has committed to helping replenish the Bucks’ future. He trusts management for now, and a new deal promises to loom. On one end, there’s Jennings having made clear in past seasons that he’s open to leaving the Bucks.
And yet, here’s Larry Sanders on another end: A growing leader, a new face of the franchise, ready for the challenge to contend for something big.