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New-look Bucks counting on Sanders to continue growth

POSTED: Oct 19, 2013 8:48 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner,


More offense from Larry Sanders could push the Bucks into the playoffs in 2013-14.

Not to get all self-referential here, but these previews and prognostications are supposed to mean something, so it's legit from time to time to check back on previous seasons as a way to verify the new.

Season Preview: Larry Sanders

Last year at this time, here's what we had as a parting note on the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks:

3. Hey now! We soon might have to put away the dated Hank Kingsley jokes if Larry Sanders doesn't seize this season as make-or-break for him. He's an all-D, no-O type and a prodigious fouler, likely to get squeezed by (Samuel) Dalembert, (John) Henson and (Ekpe) Udoh for playing time.

There was no getting around it. Sanders had reached the end of his rope last fall with Milwaukee, frustrating coach Scott Skiles with his inconsistency and GM John Hammond with the lack of urgency he brought to the Las Vegas Summer League. His anger/frustration issue with referees was a sure sign of blaming others for things under his own control. So even though Bucks owner Herb Kohl was willing to pick up the final year of Sanders' rookie deal through 2013-14, Saunders was a candidate to be benched, to be forgotten, to be gone.

But the season started and Sanders put up a pair of double-doubles in the first 10 days. The Bucks traveled to Minnesota, where Sanders pushed that to a triple-double (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 blocked shots). Twenty-four hours later, he went for 18-16-5 in a victory over Boston. Three weeks after that, he scored 17 points and grabbed 20 rebounds and the Bucks beat the Celtics again, this time in Boston.

By early January, Skiles was gone. Dalembert fell into the coaches' doghouse and never got out. Udoh slipped down the depth chart. And even while Henson was showing swell promise in limited minutes, Sanders swiftly became Milwaukee's most reliable big.

He finished with 26 double-doubles and had 36 games with 10 or more rebounds, 34 games with three or more blocks. He fouled out only three times and his demeanor with the officials was reigned in, too.

Season Preview: Bucks' Coaches Corner

Sanders' reward? Third place in Most Improved Player balloting, seventh as Defensive Player of the Year. Hammond calls him "one of the best goaltenders in the game." Oh, and there was that four-year, $44 million extension this summer.

On a team that just about needed name tags on Media Day -- there are only four players and no coaches back from what was, after all, a "playoff team" six months ago -- that makes Sanders the face and, for now, the future of the Bucks.

Who'd a thunk it, 12 months back?

"I'll be honest with you, I didn't expect to be standing here talking about Larry Sanders and a contract extension of this magnitude," Hammond said as camp opened. "I wish I could say I knew what clicked. Larry and I have talked about that. There's no real definitive answer to what happened for him."

The easy answers are time and opportunity. Doug Collins, among other coaches and talent evaluators, believes the best NBA players hit their strides in their third seasons. Veteran center Zaza Pachulia, who bounced through three teams as a young player but is back in Milwaukee now after eight seasons in Atlanta, talked about the "process" that comes with minutes and touches.

That especially mattered for Sanders, who came to the game late growing up and attracted modest attention at Virginia Commonwealth.

Said Hammond: "Larry wasn't a guy who had a basketball in his hands when he was six or seven years old, or was traveling with AAU teams. So I think there was going to be a growth period for Larry and it happened."

Don't misunderstand; Sanders still is 6-foot-11. What Hammond meant, and what Sanders will talk about, is the player's inner growth. He got his boot off his own neck, in terms of self-imposed pressure and frustration. And when things looked gloomiest last fall, he took control by letting go.

"I did a lot of things off the court. I got more grounded with my family," Sanders said, mentioning his wife Brittany and son Jasiah. "I felt more peaceful. My spiritual connection with God got really strong. Kind of just relaxing and not worrying so much about what I was going to do during the game, keep my mind focused on winning the game. And kind of let my higher power, my God, play everything out.

"The first game I really let go was that triple-double against the Timberwolves. And my mindset hasn't changed since."

Season Preview: Bucks New Additions

Sanders had what he called another "very Zen-full" summer, which sounds helpful considering Milwaukee's tense, disjointed winter and spring. From Dalembert to Brandon Jennings, from Monta Ellis to J.J. Redick and beyond, the Bucks' locker room was a parts bin last season, nothing holding them together. It was part preordained by the large number of expiring contracts, part personalities, too.

"A lot of guys weren't pointed in the same direction," Sanders said. "You had guys kind of in their own corner. Guys looking forward to the summer. Guys looking forward to the playoffs. Guys wishing we weren't in the playoffs. No one was on the same page, and it showed. We got what we deserved, which was swept [by Miami]."

This edition is more overhauled than rebuilt, with established players in place of departed ones, and a goal -- publicly, anyway -- of one of the East's lower playoff seeds. Sanders has been working on his jump hook as an upgrade to his limited offense, and Milwaukee's hope is that in time, he, Henson and Greek project Giannis Antetokounmpo, the team's 18-year-old first-round pick in June, can gel as the long-term frontcourt.

"It's time to work, man," Sanders said. "It's not over. There's a lot of responsibility to be in this position, but I love it. It's the positive pressures that come with being in this position -- the guy team looks for when it comes to bringing everyone together. Leading by example, things like that."

A year ago, Sanders might have been laughed at for such talk. Not now.

"It's about channeling energy," he said. "Keeping it all in one direction, which is beating the other team."

Three points

Season Preview: Caron Butler

1. Forward Ersan Ilyasova is a known quantity who cashed in (five years, $40 million) prior to last season. But he could be trade bait by February if the other frontcourt players develop as planned. The Bucks like their salary-cap situation going forward but could add more flexibility by moving a marketable but redundant Ilyasova.

2. Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo look like an updated version of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. But are they an upgrade? Defensively, the new Bucks backcourt is marginally bigger than the old one. In terms of attitude, they're far superior. But by reputation and production, it's a small step backward until Knight and Mayo prove that it's not.

3. New coach Larry Drew talks a lot about Caron Butler being no more than the third or fourth option last season with the Clippers. It's nice that Drew is a fan of the Bucks' new small forward, but that doesn't change Butler's age (33), mileage or injury history. Milwaukee needs Carlos Delfino to get out of that walking boot pronto, or Butler will be a candidate to break down too.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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