Introducing Larry Sanders, Front-Runner for NBA Defensive Player of the Year

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2012

MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 3: Larry Sanders #8 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Bradley Center on November 3, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Larry Sanders is stalking around the league blocking shots at an exceptional rate, and if he's able to keep this up then he's going to end up having a great shot winning the Defensive Player of the Year award.

It's only Sanders' third year out of Virginia Commonwealth University, and as one of only four players to play in the NBA out of VCU since 1980, and his relative obscurity in terms of national exposure playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, it's very possible that this guy has sneaked up on quite a few people.

Running down the stat line, Sanders averages 7.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, one assist, one steal and 3.1 blocks per game.

Defensively, he's been amazing.

Not only has he looked like a Midwestern version of Serge Ibaka, he's starting to look like he could surpass Ibaka's high-energy defensive presence at any moment. At the very least, he's been on the doorstep for the duration of the season.

Sanders and Ibaka remain separated by the smallest of margins in terms of blocks per game. Sanders is averaging 3.08, Ibaka 3.077.

The difference between the two, however, is who they've got to play with. Ibaka has a huge edge here.

Sanders is working with a makeshift crew of misfits in the frontcourt that have had varying degrees of success. Defensively, however, this Bucks team seems like it should be a total, unmitigated disaster.

For starters, the backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings is a recipe for a defensive disaster. Throw in Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova and an aging and seemingly useless Samuel Dalembert, and they can run out one of the worst defensive units in the NBA.

Running down Milwaukee's list of competent defenders, you come up with Sanders, Epke Udoh, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and occasionally Beno Udrih and Dalembert.

That's pretty much it.

Yet somehow, even with their relatively fast-paced offense (seventh-most possessions per game in the league), they're allowing just 96.5 points per game, the 13th fewest in the NBA.

With Sanders on the floor, Milwaukee is giving up just 99.3 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that number bumps 10 points to an ugly 109 points per 100 possessions.

As a comparison, the Oklahoma City Thunder are allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions when Serge Ibaka is on the court, compared to 106.8 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court.

Not only is Sanders an impressive sight for people who only look at the "glamor" defensive stats (blocks, rebounds, steals), he's starting to look like a sabermetrician's dream.

Obviously there's a problem, or there would be a lot more talk about Sanders landing some major hardware by now.

For starters, he's occasionally horrific on offense. He's much better than his previous two seasons, but he still struggles to a point where Scott Skiles doesn't seem to trust him to play too many minutes.

Skiles has started him in the past nine games, but that hasn't meant starter's minutes, still dropping in just under 30 minutes per game.

If he's not capable of seeing the floor for more than 30 minutes every game, then it's going to make it difficult to make a realistic case for his Defensive Player of the Year nomination.

What really brings him back to Earth, however, is the number of fouls he commits. 3.8 fouls per game wouldn't be terrible if he were play 38 minutes per game, but at 24 minutes, it's downright atrocious. Equating that to a 36-minute stint, he would average 5.5 fouls per game.

Ibaka is fouling guys at a rate of 3.1 per game, but he's also playing 32 minutes every game.

If we want to compare him to the pinnacle of smart defense, Tim Duncan has 71 blocks this season compared to just 49 fouls. That's 2.5 blocks per game and just 1.8 fouls.

Ultimately, the two things that are keeping him from seeing big minutes are going to keep him out of games until he learns to be a more patient, knowledgeable defender.

Until then, we can still enjoy him flying around the court and dispensing every drop of energy he has while he's out there.