Larry Sanders plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. I just wanted to get that out there, because if you had been out of the loop this season, you probably wouldn’t know who he was. Before this year, Sanders had played two largely forgettable seasons in Milwaukee since being drafted 15th overall out of VCU. Nobody was paying much attention.
All of that has changed this year. After impressing with his contributions on the defensive end, Sanders was named the starting Center for Milwaukee in December. The Bucks haven’t yet placed their full trust in the 24-year old, as he’s still only averaging 25.4 minutes per game, but that hasn’t halted his production. Sanders currently leads the league in blocks while coming in at 22nd in rebounds (Mind you, that’s per game not per 36 minutes). In fact, no player in NBA history has come close to posting Sanders’ defensive rating, defensive rebounding percentage and block percentage while playing under 30 minutes per night.
His defensive efficiency is a basketball blogger’s dream come true. Chances are if you follow any of my nerdy brethren on Twitter (or, more likely, you are one of them), then you have definitely seen a “LARRY SANDERS!” tweet on any given game night. So, let’s take a deeper look into this new found obsession with Larry Sanders, and see just how high his ceiling is.
The most obvious impact that Larry Sanders has been having in his sudden rise to prominence is his partiality for knocking opponent’s shots into the third row. To date, Sanders is leading the NBA with 3.2 blocks per game, or an asinine 4.4 swats per 36. This is good for a league-best block percentage of 8.9%, a full two percent better than No. 2 Serge Ibaka.
His extraordinary success in this aspect of the game was a topic discussed in one of the papers at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As opposed to other elite defenders who may deter opponents from shooting inside, Sanders’ presence has shown the ability to reduce an opponent’s shooting efficiency. This was measured by analyzing the field goal percentage of close range shots when a qualifying interior defender was within 5 feet of the basket. In fact, Sanders ranked No. 1 in what they deemed “Proximal Field Goal Percentage”. This led to the authors naming Larry Sanders “the best interior defender in the NBA.”
It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. One aspect of defense that Sanders has continued to struggle with at the professional level is fouling. He has seen a significant increase year-to-year in his number of fouls per game, topping out at 3.6. When looked at through the lens of 36 minutes, Sanders would be averaging 5 fouls per game. As a big man whose main attribute is defense, staying out of foul trouble needs to become a point of focus. Otherwise, it will be hard for the Bucks to play him anymore then they currently are.
Another point of concern is on the offensive side of the ball. This year, Sanders is averaging as many field goal attempts from 16-23 feet as he is from 3-9 feet. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, this is not his wheelhouse, as his 25% shooting accuracy from this distance is the worst amongst qualifying shooters. This is a common phenomenon in younger, promising players, as they were often relied upon to make these shots in college. Fortunately, those truly dedicated to being the best that they can be grow out of it. The perfect example of this would be Tyson Chandler, who grew out of his immature affinity for jump shots, and now almost exclusively shoots at the rim. In this respect, there’s plenty of hope for Sanders as he has already proven that he is more than capable of finishing near the basket.
All of this has caused much excitement amongst die-hards about what the future may hold for Larry Sanders. To have one of basketball’s top analytical minds name you the best interior defender in the league is no small feat. At this rate, it surely would not be a surprise to see Sanders follow in Chandler’s footsteps and become Defensive Player of the Year at some point down the line. That being said, there is still much work to do on both ends of the floor. Hopefully, for all of our sakes, Milwaukee will continue to improve as a unit and allow for this development to occur. If not, I’m sure there will be plenty of willing suitors come 2014.