Breaking Down What Larry Sanders Must Do to Become an Elite NBA Center

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 9, 2013

Feb 20, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders (8) during the game against the Brooklyn Nets at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.  The Nets won 97-94.  Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Larry Sanders' rise up the NBA ranks has been nothing short of meteoric. But it can't stop now if he hopes to become a truly elite center.

To put things in perspective, the Milwaukee Bucks big man was drafted at No. 339 last summer in B/R's first official NBA Re-Draft. And here's what Los Angeles Clippers Re-Draft general manager Adam Friedgood had to say about his last-round selection

Larry Sanders has the potential to put up huge rebounding and blocks totals if he ever gets the chance to play significant minutes. Sanders was 20th in the NBA last season in blocks per game with 1.5, even though he only played a meager 12.4 minutes per game. He also averaged just over three rebounds per game in such a short time.

He is a terrific player to have as the 12th man on your squad.

This year, Sanders went in the second round. I can't reveal exactly where yet, but that's only because the second annual Re-Draft has yet to be published and will be coming out later in August. Get excited. 

Again, talk about a meteoric ascent. 

Sanders may not have been named the NBA's Most Improved Player, but he was right in the conversation. The center averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He even managed to record the elsuive triple-double of points, rebounds and rejections.  

So, how can he continue to shoot up into the realm of true stars? 


Keep Running Pick-and-Rolls

While Sanders wasn't a particularly effective offensive player during his breakout season with the Bucks, he was still potent in certain situations. Many of his 9.8 points per game stemmed from his ability to grab offensive rebounds and then slam the ball back through the hole, and he was also a great finisher in pick-and-roll situations. 

According to SynergySports (subscription required), Sanders scored 1.01 points per possession (59th in the NBA) when he was the roll man, and he functioned as such more than twice per game. He shot 55 percent after receiving the ball en route to the basket and drew six and-ones in the process.

Even if he isn't the most technically gifted player, Sanders showed off some soft hands and good finishing skills around the rim. 

Take a look at this play, which the Bucks ran against the Miami Heat during the postseason. 

Sanders quickly slides over and sets a brutal screen, absolutely freezing Mario Chalmers in his tracks. It was on the verge of being a moving screen, and I quite frankly wouldn't have protested had the referees decided to call an offensive foul. 

But regardless, this is such a hard screen that Chalmers has no chance of getting around it, and Chris Bosh is forced to hedge toward Brandon Jennings in the hopes of preventing an easy two points. 

Once Sanders starts rolling to the basket, the suffocating Miami defense begins closing in around him. Bosh is in hot pursuit after forcing Jennings to swing the ball into Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's hands, and Mike Miller is sliding over to get in the way. 

There really isn't much of a window here, especially with a poor passing forward holding the rock. 

However, the Bucks know that Sanders has good hands. Mbah a Moute doesn't hesitate to throw the entry pass, and Sanders makes a difficult, outstretched catch with his long arms. 

After corralling the awkward pass, Sanders draws contact yet still finishes the play as Miller is whistled for the foul.

But Sanders' pick-and-roll skills are by no means limited to floor-based movement and impressive catches. He's also a high-flier, and his leaping ability allows him to take advantage of opportunities that wouldn't otherwise exist, as he did here against the San Antonio Spurs

In this situation, Sanders sets a much less impressive screen against the shifty Tony Parker, but it's still enough for Jennings to wiggle by and create space. 

Sanders rolls to the hoop, but Jennings is stuck.

There really isn't a place for the ball to go against the defensively sound San Antonio unit, which has effectively shut down the entire paint. Mbah a Moute isn't a threat on the perimeter, so the defense is even more collapsed that it typically would be. 

Any type of bounce pass will surely result in a turnover and fast-break opportunity for the Spurs.

Jennings recognizes this, but he's also aware that Sanders' athleticism is part of what makes the big man special. 

Up goes the ball, and along with it goes Sanders. When he catches the pass, he's not even at the peak of his jump, and his head is still coming in just shy of the rim. 

It's an easy two points, and Sanders sprints back in transition, ready to block a shot on the other end. 


Work on Post Moves and Spot-Up Jumpers

Sanders can't remain that limited on offense, though—at least not if he hopes to become an elite NBA center instead of just a defensive specialist who occasionally contributes on the more glamorous end of the court.

To make the transition a successful one, he must have two primary points of emphasis: post moves and spot-up jumpers. 

Right now, Sanders is absolutely putrid in the post. He isn't an effective scorer, and he's not very good at passing the ball back out to his teammates either. 

According to Synergy, the big man scored only 0.62 points per possession in post-up situations, good for No. 153 in the league. That's not entirely terrible, but it's pretty bad, especially when coupled with his turnover-prone nature. He coughed up the rock 15 percent of the time he went to work with his back to the basket. 

Here's the first example, taken from another playoff game against the Heat. 

Sanders attacks in the post, looking to take advantage of a switch-created mismatch with Mike Miller. But the Heat defense swarms, as it often does, and he's left without many options. 

I've circled Ersan Ilyasova, who is on the weak side of the court, simply because it's hilarious to me that the Turkish forward thinks he may actually get the ball. He's open, but Sanders in no way possesses the skill necessary to make that cross-court pass. 

Now that you see that the defense has collapsed, shift your focus to LeBron James, who is circled. 

James is baiting Sanders, knowing that the big man doesn't have anywhere to go with the ball. And remember, the reigning MVP has one of the highest basketball IQs in the game. He knows exactly where to position himself, and he stands so that Sanders' sight is obscured by Udonis Haslem. 

Sure enough, Sanders takes the bait. 

He passes the rock out to Monta Ellis, but it's intercepted by LeBron. 


Unfortunately, this isn't the only way in which Sanders coughs up the ball. He doesn't have a particularly good handle when he's attempting to make the only move in his bag of tricks: a burst to the side and something that seems to be in between a jump-hook and a straight-up jumper. 

In this situation, the Orlando Magic defense doesn't seem particularly concerned about Sanders' abilities in the post, as evidenced by the massive opening they're leaving him in the paint. 

Sanders starts to use his favorite move—seriously, it's shocking how high a percentage of his plays result in drives to the right out of the post—and the Magic defense doesn't pay much heed. It knows that Nikola Vucevic is still in great position. 

Just a second later, Sanders has been separated from the ball. 

There was no contact, nor did a quick guard come in to swipe the ball away. He just lost it, leaving it floating perilously in the open space before it fell into the hands of a Magic defender. 

Even when Sanders does manage to get a shot off, the results aren't positive, regardless of which way he goes. And as the season progressed, defenses started to force Sanders to his left with increasing frequency, as you can see Chris Bosh doing below. 

Of Sanders' 60 post possessions, eight resulted in face-up looks. He went left 28 times and used the area to his right 24 times. 

Here's a breakdown of what happened on each side: 



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Sanders shot only 34.8 percent going to his left and 44.4 percent to the right. And while he was better at limiting his turnovers and drawing fouls moving left, those positives were not enough to make up the shooting disparity, hence the pressure from defenses to force him left.

Until the big man either starts hitting his hook-jumper (I have no clue what else to call it) or develops a wider range of moves, he's going to be easy to stop. It's telling that Sanders never even attempted a drop step or up-and-under move throughout the entire season and postseason combined. 

He also needs to start hitting his spot-up jumpers with much more frequency, especially if he's going to continue being so quick to pull the trigger.

According to Synergy, Sanders had 74 spot-up opportunities (including a three-pointer that came with 11 seconds left on the shot clock!) and made only 22 of his 63 attempts. All in all, he finished No. 345 in the league by scoring a putrid 0.65 points per possession. 

Defenses could basically ignore him, as you can see Nikola Pekovic doing below.

This must change, or else Sanders' presence on the court will continue to allow extra men to camp out in the paint whenever he's on the perimeter. Five-on-five basketball is hard enough; four-on-five ball is virtually impossible.


Close Out on Shooters Better

Defensively, Sanders is already a great player. 

He's much more than just a shot-blocker, even though he's played major minutes for only one season. Shot-blockers typically fall into two categories: reckless defenders who compile glamour stats or rim-protectors who still exercise caution. 

Even the league's best rejectors can have trouble with that distinction, and it can take years for the transition to be made. Serge Ibaka, for example, fell into the latter category only this past year.

Sanders was way up there on the blocks leaderboard, but he also understands discipline. It's what made him a surprisingly effective post defender during his just third professional season. 

However, there's still one area in which Sanders truly struggles.

He's awful at closing out on jump-shooters because he still has an unfortunate tendency to stray too far to the strong side and over help for his teammates. It's a mentality that may have been created by playing alongside the two sieves known as Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, so we'll see how quickly it changes when he stands next to Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo. 

As shown by Synergy, Sanders allowed 1.1 points per possession to spot-up shooters, a number topped by...318 players throughout the Association. Ouch. 

He forced turnovers only 1.9 percent of the time and let his man shoot 47.9 percent. And remember, that's a that figure reflects mostly jump-shooting, so it's more impressive than a sub-50 percent number would typically be. 

A great example of Sanders' flaw comes below in a play against the Cleveland Cavaliers

Sanders begins the play guarding Tyler Zeller out on the perimeter. Nothing special happening yet. 

After Zeller swings the ball to the corner, Sanders starts playing way too much help defense. He isn't actually doing much to aid the Milwaukee cause by providing an extra defensive presence around the baseline. 

However, he's creating a huge gap between himself and Zeller. 

You know when it's really hard to play effective defense? When you get caught in the air like this and can't push off the ground to change directions. 

All it takes is a simple pump from the former North Carolina standout, and Sanders is in big trouble. He's already closing at full speed to make up the ground he allowed to open up between himself and his man.

Zeller isn't exactly the fastest big man in the NBA, but he easily has enough speed to blow by the airborne Sanders and finish the play with a nice floater. 

Plays like this—and ones in which Sanders simply couldn't recover in time to prevent a jumper—happened with alarming frequency in 2012-13.

That can't be true again next year. 

Sanders is well on his way to becoming an elite big man in the league, but there are still some pretty significant flaws that he has to work on. This struggle against spot-up shooters is certainly one, but it's no more important than expanding his offensive arsenal. 

He has to keep running plenty of pick-and-roll sets, but those can't be the sole source of his scoring output. After all, truly elite centers who don't play much offense aren't exactly a dime a dozen. 

Sanders should have plenty of opportunities to improve his game during real-time action, as the Bucks aren't going to be very competitive in 2013-14.

Here's hoping he takes advantage of the chance. 


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