MILWAUKEE – Larry Sanders has sent basketballs into the fifth row. He has had sequences in which he thwarted one, two – boom! – even three shots in rapid succession, essentially hanging a “Closed For Business” sign on the rim for that possession anyway.
But the blocked shots the Milwaukee Bucks’ one-man SWAT team likes best, the ones that bring adrenaline and satisfaction in equal doses, are when the ball winds up in his hands. Or better still, batted or shuttled quickly to Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis for two points before the snuffed shooter can even finish griping to a ref or picking himself up off the floor.
“I love it when it starts the break. That’s my favorite,” said the 6-foot-11 Saunders, in his third season out of Virginia Commonwealth. “When they go out of bounds, that’s all well and good. The fans get excited by those. But keeping them in play, those are my favorite ones.”
That, clearly, is straight out of the Bill Russell handbook, a defensive/rebounding/shot-blocking role model if only Sanders, 24, had been born 30 years earlier. As it was, he spent his Wonder years watching and eventually emulating not the Boston Celtics’ fabled No. 6 but the fellow who now wears that team’s No. 5, Kevin Garnett.
No one is equating Sanders, even in this breakout season of his, with the Hall of Fame specialness of either Russell or Garnett. But there have been nights these past two months when Sanders at least seemed to be auditioning for the tribute band.
There was his triple-double game at Minnesota Nov. 30 — off the bench — when he scored 10 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked 10 Timberwolves shots (tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 39-year-old franchise record for blocks in a game).
There was his 16 boards and five swats the next night against Boston and a seven-block effort against New Orleans on Dec. 3 that even topped Kareem (20) for most blocked shots in a three-game span.
And if you squinted a little bit on Dec. 21, Sanders’ lanky frame and facial hair — against the backdrop of the parquet court at Boston’s TD Bankgarden — made him look eerily like Russell when he had 17 points, 20 rebounds and four blocks in the Bucks’ overtime win against the Celtics. He made YouTube that night by finishing an alley-oop dunk over Garnett late in the fourth quarter.
Before that game, Celtics coach Doc Rivers compared Sanders to Oklahoma City’s shot-attacking Serge Ibaka. “We should probably stop shooting when he’s right there,” Rivers said. “I honestly told my son, Austin, when they played the Bucks, I said, ‘Hey Austin, be careful with Sanders, you get a step deep and he’ll get you.’ I think his first two shots were blocked, so I was thinking, ‘Nothing changes. No one listens.’ ”
Many, however, are noticing. Sanders has emerged as a candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award only a few months after slipping down — some might say nearly off — the Bucks’ depth chart. Frankly, they’re as surprised by his work this season as half the unsuspecting wing players whose shot attempts he has rejected.
Drafted at No. 15 in 2010, Sanders was raw, a project player who came to the game late as a skinny sophomore at Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High. He was all elbows, cockeyed jump shots and potential (4.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg in 14.5 mpg) as a Bucks rookie and, unprepared when the lockout ended, there was no step forward last season.
Even Sanders’ progress this season snuck up on Milwaukee. General manager John Hammond worked overtime to add size last spring, trading for veteran center Samuel Dalembert and picking UNC’s John Henson on draft night. Then he signed 7-foot-1 free agent Joel Przybilla, too, with the plan of bulking up around Ekpe Udoh and Drew Gooden, who shouldered most of the “big” burden once Andrew Bogut got hurt and then dealt.
Sanders? He was underwhelming in the Las Vegas summer league and slipping off the Bucks’ radar when training camp opened. Hammond said Thursday he would have made the same roster moves had Sanders’ improvement been apparent sooner, but he did acknowledge the bonus aspect of Sanders’ play.
“You never know exactly when a guy is going to ‘get it,’ ” Hammond said, who sees Tyson Chandler possibilities in his center. “Larry seems to have figured some things out on the offensive end to make himself as productive as possible. And defensively, he kind of has the gift of timing on blocking shots and the length to grab the ball above the rim.”
Sanders has cleaned up and calmed down, fouling a little less often and controlling his emotions better after he hears those whistles. He logged long hours over the summer at the IMG Academies in Florida, working with Dan Barto, the director of NBA/college player development.
“He really focused on my pace,” Sanders said. “Catching the ball in certain situations. And being in control, not going 100 miles an hour every time.”
Sanders’ defensive strengths have been as obvious for the Bucks this season as his offensive weaknesses have been glaring. When he’s on the floor, Milwaukee’s offensive rating drops from 104.2 to 93.9. But its defensive rating improves by an even greater amount, from 105.5 to 94.5.
He is tied with Ibaka at No. 1 in blocks per game (3.0) and with San Antonio’s Tim Duncan at No. 10 in total rebound percentage (18.6). Sanders, though, has the edge atop the NBA’s defensive ratings, his 93.9 better than the Spurs all-timer’s 94.4.
Sanders had nine rebounds and four blocks in 23 minutes against San Antonio Wednesday. He got Duncan once, Tony Parker once and Kawhi Leonard twice, including a runout layup that Sanders raced back in time to swat off the backboard.
“I feel like he could have done this last year,” said Spurs swingman Stephen Jackson, who spent part of 2011-12 with Milwaukee. “Big man, aggressive, blocks shots and he wants to get better. He’s way more consistent – he’s not worrying about whether he’s going to play or not this year. He knows he’s going to get in. He looks way more relaxed.”
Way more, anyway, than the opponents who bring the ball into Sanders’ vicinity and then think twice about it. Or worse, too late, don’t.