Among the usual suspects being discussed as the league's best defender this season sits Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders. However, as the third-year player from VCU continues to emerge as an elite shot-blocker, it's hard not to wonder what his ceiling is.
Ranking atop the list of leading shot-blockers with 3.1 per game, it's no secret that Sanders is most valuable on the defensive end of the floor. Those who are surprised by this breakout season, though, shouldn't be.
During his rookie year, Sanders averaged 1.2 blocks in just 14.5 minutes per game. In his second season, his minutes dropped, but his production on defense didn't, as he blocked 1.5 shots per game. Those numbers translate extremely well when converted to per 36 minutes.
When discussing the potential of Sanders, though, defense isn't a major talking point because that aspect is already there.
The youth and inexperience of Sanders really sticks out when looking at his game offensively as well as his inability to stay out of foul trouble. These two areas could dictate his future success.
Along with more minutes and more blocks have come more fouls.
Sanders is no different than other big men in this category. At 3.5 fouls per game, he ranks slightly behind fellow defensive stalwarts like Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert. But the fouls he commits are usually not the product of his aggressive shot-blocking nature. In fact, more often than not, Sanders picks up quick, silly fouls that end up taking him out of the game early.
These fouls are often the result of being out of position. Sanders frequently gets hit with over-the-back calls on the offensive glass, and his failure to put a body on his man defensively results in the same outcome.
As he's demonstrated recently, frustration tends to take over when officials whistle him. Prior to yesterday's game against the Orlando Magic, Sanders had been ejected in two straight games.
According to Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sanders' behavior isn't lost on head coach Jim Boylan:
Sanders was ejected for the second straight game when he picked up two technical fouls with 2:44 remaining, after he was called for fouling James on a drive.
Boylan said there would be a serious discussion with Sanders about his on-court behavior.
"You're a professional athlete, and you have to behave like a professional," Boylan said. "The referees don't come in here with an agenda, for the most part. They come in here and ref the game.
"I know all those guys. It doesn't mean you can't have an argument or a disagreement with one of them. That happens in the heat of the game. We'll talk with Larry. Like I've said to Larry before, I don't mind him playing with emotion as long as it doesn't hurt the team.
It's all part of the learning process, but Sanders will need to learn to cope with the inconsistencies of NBA officiating if he wants to stay on the court and keep his sanity.
And while he's shown promise on offense, Sanders is still relatively raw.
With his size, length and athleticism, he should be averaging more than 9.1 points per game. Right now, much of his output comes as a product of his work on the offensive boards.
Since being drafted, Sanders has improved his post repertoire, but it still needs plenty of work. He's also shown the ability to hit the occasional mid-range jump shot, but not consistently enough to fall in love with it—which he sometimes does.
On a positive note, Sanders has improved both his field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage in each of his three seasons. If he can continue to shoot the 50.9 percent from the field that he's shooting this year throughout his career, that will mean his offensive game will complement his already great defense.
That's not to say that he's bad offensively. He just needs work.
From less than five feet, Sanders is shooting 60.7 percent, showing that he's solid at finishing around the basket. With some added strength, that number could, and should, continue to increase.
In order for him to become an even more complete offensive player, though, he must continue to work on his mid-range game.
If he can improve on the 30.6 percent he's shooting from five to 14 feet, defenders will be forced to leave the comfort of the paint to guard him. Given the quickness and athletic advantage he has over a lot of centers, this would allow him to get by slower defenders for easier baskets.
The 2012-13 season for Sanders has been a successful one regardless of how he finishes. He's taken big steps in almost every aspect of his game and should continue to do so.
It'd be foolish to say he's the next Dwight Howard. He's not that type of player and probably won't ever be.
That's not a knock, though.
There's no reason why Sanders cannot be an elite defender year in and year out and enjoy success similar to the likes of Joakim Noah and Serge Ibaka.
He's already started off down the right path. Now he just needs to continue working hard and improving his weaknesses.