The Milwaukee Bucks have made tremendous strides in shoring up the center position this summer.
This group gives the Bucks a solid collection of big men, who will do well complementing the team's shooters. As pointed out by Alex Boeder on the Bucks' NBA.com blog, Milwaukee has made great strides as a three-point shooting team and will need a formidable inside presence to ensure that progress is not interrupted.
Let's take a look at who these guys are, their roles and what they bring to the team this year.
Larry Sanders, Starting Center
Sanders had a breakout year last season improving in every crucial category in which centers are expected to produce.
After two underwhelming seasons, Sanders averaged 3.95 points, 3.05 rebounds and 1.35 blocks per contest. When the 2012-2013 campaign came to a close, Sanders was averaging 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. Although his blocks and rebounds average declined slightly in the playoffs, his point production increased to 10.8 points.
It doesn't take a sports guru to see that defense is Sanders' strong suit. Only Serge Ibaka outperformed Sanders last season when it came to protecting the rim. Milwaukee will be looking for more defensive prowess from him when the Bucks return to the court in October.
Offensively, Sanders can be a bit of a liability due to the lack of a consistent mid-range jumper.
Not that the Bucks actually need another shooter on their roster, but it's always great to have another player that forces the defense to stay honest as opposed to playing off for a double team. For Sanders, developing a reliable 16-foot shot could be the difference between being considered a solid player and being considered an All-Star.
There is no reason to believe that Sanders will not improve this season.
Given the way that he responded to seeing his minutes per game double last year, Sanders is poised to have an even bigger year. Expect Sanders' minutes to slightly increase to around 29 per game. Also anticipate an increase in points and rebounds per game, reaching 12 and 11 respectively. The only decline will come in the blocks category, hovering closer to two per game. That decrease will not be because of a lack of effort but rather from players learning to not drive into the lane when Sanders is in the paint.
ZaZa Pachulia, Primary Reserve
Pachulia is a ten-year veteran whose seasoned skill set makes him an ideal backup center for any team.
While his game-to-game box score doesn't turn anyone's head, Pachulia brings a wealth of intangibles that will contribute to the Bucks' success.
Last season Pachulia was a member of the Atlanta Hawks where he averaged 5.9 points and 6.5 rebounds while playing 21.8 minutes per game. If those numbers don't sound spectacular, it's because they aren't—but Pachulia's value goes much deeper than empirical data for stat crunchers.
Although he will not flat-out stop anyone defensively, Pachulia will wear his opponent down with relentless physical play and does a great job keeping his man off of the glass. Offensively, Pachulia isn't making any highlight reels; however, he has learned how to create shot attempts that play to his strengths. He's like that old boxer that knows he can't overwhelm his younger, quicker competition, but he can outthink them.
Unfortunately, Pachulia's strengths also double as his weaknesses.
Not being able to do anything great means that, while he can still manage to be effective in a limited role, he leaves a lot to be desired if he's needed beyond that.
Right now, Sanders and Pachulia complement each other well, with Sanders being able to keep up with an opponent's starting center and Pachulia being able to neutralize another team's reserve. If Sanders were to sit out an extended period time for any reason, Pachulia's production is not enough to compensate for Sanders' absence—causing a strain on his teammates to carry more than their fair share of extra slack.
Durability has also been an issue with Pachulia as of late.
Last season ended early for Pachulia when he had to have surgery on his Achilles back in March. With the Bucks having nothing but high expectations this season, it's almost certain they're not pondering those what-ifs.
All things being ideal, expect Pachulia's minutes to drop to about 16-18 per game. His points per game should stay on par with last year given that he’s also a solid free-throw shooter, but Pachulia's rebounds may decline to about four or five per game due to the drop in minutes.
Miroslav Raduljica, secondary reserve
Raduljica comes to the NBA by way of the Ukraine.
He's only 25 years old, but Raduljica's European playing career has spanned seven seasons.
Bucks director of player personnel Dave Babcock is very pleased with Raduljica's addition. Andrew Gruman of FoxSportsWisonsin.com quoted Babcock as saying, "Very good shooter, very skilled big man. He's very knowledgeable. He's an OK athlete, strong and tough."
In that same article, Raduljica doesn’t shy away from proclaiming his strengths:
I can play both under the basket and shoot. I think I'm pretty quick for my size and my body. I think I can shoot pretty well. Maybe the guys from the (United) States don't know me well or didn't see me, but I'm sure I'm going to prove myself and you will be surprised.
His confidence should be reassuring for Bucks fans, but let's not discount Raduljica's lack of NBA experience.
While it is hard to diagnose specific strengths and weaknesses of a player of whom American fans have seen almost nothing, game film isn't needed to know that Raduljica has not played against anyone on level with the likes of Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah—or even Robin Lopez.
The potential in Raduljica may be promising, but his role will be that of the understudy this season.
It's hard to pin down projections for someone who is bound to play so little, but expect maybe three to five minutes per game which should be enough to chip in two points and two rebounds.