After two seldom-seen, unimpressive campaigns to start his career, Sanders marked his territory under the basket in 2012-13. Behind a league-best 7.6 block percentage, he garnered top-10 support from both the Most Improved Player (third) and Defensive Player of the Year (seventh) award voters.
Doling out present payments for future production is far from an exact science, though. Some have gambled right (see: Rajon Rondo's $12 million salary); others have not (see: Ben Gordon's $13.2 million salary).
Sanders has gone from being a forgettable player to one of the league's most feared shot-blocking bigs. But is he really ready for this latest role as Milwaukee's franchise face?
This isn't a knock on his mental makeup, although he's certainly fueled enough fires in that department to warrant such a jab.
The only people who grew more tired of Sanders' floor presence than opposing drivers last season were David Stern's zebra crew. His incessant chirps resulted in 14 technical foul calls, tied for third-highest in the NBA, and a league-high five ejections.
But those early exits were nowhere near as damaging as Sanders' latest head-scratcher. An early morning fisticuffs session at a downtown Milwaukee nightclub on Nov. 3 led to a torn ligament in his right thumb, which Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports will keep him sidelined for the next six weeks.
Never one to engage in any holier-than-thou moral bashing, there are still some questions to be asked about a team's star player removing himself from game action by way of a bar-room brawl.
But those aren't the questions I'm interested in here. Sanders' on-court limitations are a bigger concern in my mind than his off-court forays.
No one will argue about his defensive gifts.
He's sent back at least 3.0 shots per 36 minutes in each of his four NBA seasons, and his 18.6 rebounding rate in 2012-13 put him among the league's top-20 glass eaters, via ESPN.com. As a pick-and-roll defender, Grantland.com's Zach Lowe calls Sanders—or SANDERS!—"a freaking savant."
But being a one-dimensional threat is losing its value during the NBA's analytical evolution. Scoring guards like Monta Ellis and Jamal Crawford have found relatively meager earnings on the open market. Tony Allen, the Memphis Grizzlies' offensively challenged defensive hound, returned to the team on a four-year, $20 million deal this summer.
In other words, Milwaukee's hoping for more than just rim protection with its $44 million investment in Sanders. And it's a hope, not an expectation, thanks to the big man's underwhelming stat sheet.
Despite living under the basket since joining the league, he's only finished with one season with a field-goal percentage above 46.0. Even the bulk of his 50.6 percent success rate in 2012-13 came on basketball gimmes. Of his 325 made field goals last season (in the regular season and playoffs combined), 245 of them (75.4 percent) were either dunks, layups or tip shots.
When Sanders initiated his offense outside the restricted area, the results were disastrous. He attempted 243 shots from outside of three feet in 2012-13, connecting on just 30.9 percent of those chances.
This season, with the ink still drying on his new deal and the hope for progression at its highest, Sanders had a hard time simply staying on the floor under first-year Bucks coach Larry Drew. He saw fewer than 22 minutes in each of his first three games while struggling to both find his shot (25.0 field-goal percentage) and defend without fouling (6.2 fouls per 36 minutes).
Before this injury forced him out of action, Sanders was having a hard time understanding why his coach chose to do the same, via NBA.com's Steve Aschburner:
I feel like I’m capable of being in the game at the end and helping my team win, coming up with blocks and rebounds. I haven’t been able to get my rhythm out there. I understand foul trouble situations, but tonight, I wasn’t in foul trouble.
Last year, I finished so many games. I feel like that’s when I lock in the most. But I haven’t been able to get in the game to finish. That carries over to the next game. When you sit the last three quarters of each game, I can’t have no carryover. And it’s hard for me. I’m still a young player. It’s only my eighth year playing basketball.
He's absolutely right in the sense that he needs more time to develop. Milwaukee should see things just as clearly; the Brink's truck left Sanders' driveway a long time ago.
Sanders needs work on the low block. While he could thrive in a Tyson Chandler-like role as a defensive-minded, pick-and-roll finisher, it's hard to imagine him seeing too many scoring chances with Brandon Knight controlling the rock.
Sanders needs to find an offensive niche below the rim. Whether that's locking himself inside the Bucks Training Center until he finds a serviceable jumper or fine-tuning his offensive post game, he needs something that isn't dependent upon the creativity of his teammates.
History has shown us players like Sanders before and left two dramatically different paths for him to follow.
Good Move by Milwaukee?
It's far too early to start waving any white flags, but the red ones are absolutely flying at full mast.
What kind of player can Sanders become? Is he a wildly entertaining but woefully limited player a la JaVale McGee? Or can he still emerge as a bargain All-Star along the lines of a Joakim Noah?
This much is already clear—defensive effort won't ensure playing time on this frontcourt. Not with Ekpe Udoh, John Henson and Zaza Pachulia filling the ranks around him.
Sanders needs to separate himself from the crowd, and not just the oversized one nestled in Brew Town.
He's not a $44 million player right now, regardless of how clean his financial books look. The Bucks invested in the idea of his future, not the reality of his present.
Sanders does have time on his side. He turns 25 later this month, so a late-blooming conclusion might still be in the cards.
But the work still in front of him is staggering.
Maybe Milwaukee felt it had no other choice. After watching Ellis and Brandon Jennings attach frightening connotations to the phrase "shot selection," anything would have seemed like a great alternative.
But the Bucks paid a name-brand premium for store-brand production. This story can still change, but right now, it's impossible to read anything but bad business from this tale.
Sanders can be a piece of Milwaukee's puzzle, but that eighth-seed cap is clearly still in play as long as he's the franchise centerpiece.
If the Bucks were searching for another trip to mediocrity, then this feels like a home run. If their sights were set anywhere beyond a first-round exit, though, they are behind the count and up against a wicked strikeout artist.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.