Leaps and bounds

Bucks’ Sanders turning heads with dramatic progress

There was a time not so long ago when being a night-in, night-out impact player seemed a long ways away for Larry Sanders.

So maybe it’s only appropriate that Sanders, after rejecting an opposing player’s shot into the crowd, has begun squinting into the distance, with his hand shielding his eyes from the glare of arena lights, beholding his handiwork from afar.

Through games of Feb. 1, the third-year Milwaukee Bucks forward/center was leading the National Basketball Association with 131 blocks – just 17 fewer than he recorded in his first two years as a pro combined. His averaged 3.05 blocks per game put him ahead of Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka (2.86) and Tim Duncan (2.74), whom he passed in December.

The 6-foot-11-inch, 235-pound Sanders has begun to generate a groundswell of support for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, which through 27 seasons has never gone to a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Teammate Ersan Ilyasova finished second in the voting last year to Ryan Anderson, then with the Orlando Magic and currently with the New Orleans Hornets.

Sanders hasn’t simply been a shot-blocking specialist, either.

His average minutes, points, rebounds and blocks have all more than doubled since last season, when he logged 12.4 minutes, 3.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.46 blocks per outing. Through Feb. 1, he was averaging 25.3 minutes, 8.2 points and team highs of 8.4 rebounds and 3 blocks. He had at least one block in 31 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the league.

Sanders established single-game career bests with 19 points at Phoenix on Jan. 17, 10 blocks at Minnesota on Nov. 30 and 20 rebounds and 39 minutes at Boston on Dec. 21.

Sanders’ 10 swats against the Timberwolves tied a franchise record set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Nov. 3, 1973, against Detroit. They came as part of Sanders’ first career NBA triple-double as he totaled 10 points and 10 rebounds.

According to basketballreference.com, Sanders’ triple-double made his the only Bucks reserve – and one of only 13 in the NBA – to record a triple-double in the last 25 years. He also became one of just four reserves to block 10 shots in a game since 1985-86, and the first since Keon Clark of the Toronto Raptors, who accomplished the feat March 23, 2001, with 12 blocks.

Sanders started just 12 games over the span of his first two pro seasons, but through contests of Feb. 1, he had started 27 of 43 games at the center position. In the process, he has become a huge fan favorite at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, inspiring chants of, “Lar-ry! Lar-ry! Lar-ry!” at every Bucks home game.

The first half of the 2012-13 season has been quite a thrill ride for the 24-year-old Sanders, who only began playing organized hoops at the age of 16.

"It's been good,” Sanders said. “It's been a really good first half, with a lot of learning, a lot of experience. I'm just trying to take that momentum and keep pushing forward, keep learning and keep getting better.

“I want to keep growing as a player both on and off the floor. I never want to feel like I've arrived. I don't think I'll ever feel that. I'll always feel like I could have played better or could have done something more. I want to do whatever I can to help my team."

Sanders has certainly done that, helping put Milwaukee in contention for its second playoff trip in seven seasons. The Bucks were 24-21 as of Feb. 21, holding down the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference.

Sanders credits much of his emergence to the work he put in last summer at IMG Academies in his home state of Florida. He worked on all facets of his game, but concentrated on playing at a controlled pace that would enable him to stay out of foul trouble and not rush his shots at the offensive end of the court.

His offensive game has improved by leaps and bounds. Through Feb. 1, he owned the second-highest field-goal percentage on his team, .527, thanks in part to a developing repertoire of hook shots and vastly better jump shot.

"One thing I really want to do is be consistent,” Sanders said. “I'm not as consistent as I want to be, but I'm a lot more consistent than I was in the past, and I'm really happy about that. That's been big for me. I just want to keep it up."

Sanders credits his coaches for much of his progress.

“Jim (Boylan) especially has definitely helped,” Sanders said. “He doesn't chastise me and say I've taken a bad shot. He tells me to work on it, become better and believe I can do it. That confidence that he shows in me makes me believe I can do it. That drives me in a lot of ways.”

Sanders’ teammates have factored into his progress as well.

"They’ve been great,” Sanders said. “My teammates instill a lot of confidence in me. They believe in me to make plays down the stretch and deliver for them. Teammates build confidence in each other. That's huge. We haven't always had that, but it feels great now that we do."

The most consistent factor in Sanders’ development has been his faith. A regular at pregame and postgame prayer sessions, Sanders knows that his basketball career – and his life – are in God’s hands. He plays and lives with that trust.

"Faith is something that you can consistently have in your life -- that belief,” Sanders said. “It definitely drives me in a lot of different areas."

Lately, it has been driving Sanders up the charts, and his team has followed.

"You never want to feel like you're at the peak, or you'll start to decline,” he said. “I'm still climbing."