With a four-year contract extension in his back pocket, Larry Sanders finds himself in a very different position this September than he did one year ago. Rather than fighting for a small chunk of minutes, Sanders enters this season as a leader on the court and in the locker room. Improving the Bucks' defense to an elite level--likely their best chance at the playoffs--will surely be his top goal, but superstardom will remain out of reach until his offensive game catches up to his excellence on defense.
So how does a long, athletic, 24-year-old center improve on offense? Dunking everything he could was a good start last season, but he'll need to expand and hone his skills to make another leap. To you, readers, I ask, where should Sanders focus when looking to improve his offensive game? Here are four possible avenues.
One spot where Larry still lags behind even average players is free-throw shooting. As a career 58% shooter at the line, Sanders can still be a liability in late-game situations. It hasn't mattered much since Sanders doesn't draw many fouls (his 2.5 FTA/36min last year was a career high), but with fewer shots likely to be vacuumed up by the backcourt this season, Larry could see a significant increase in shot attempts this season. That's great if he keeps dunking all the time, but eventually opponents are going to give him a whack and make him earn his points at the line. Just getting his FT% up to the positional average of 68% would be nice. Anything above 70% would be terrific. Getting more attempts will likely come with a higher usage rate or more work in the pick-and-roll, but it's tough to predict just how well the Bucks' current roster is equipped to run extensive P&R.
Speaking of dunking, Sanders' huge leap in scoring efficiency relied primarily on his sudden proclivity for emphatic slams. Many of those easy buckets came off penetration by the Bucks' speedy guards, who were both talented (if inconsistent) passers. Monta Ellis in particular was an excellent interior passer who created a boatload of shots by attacking the rim while Sanders hovered near the paint. Swapping in the turnover-prone Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo harms the Bucks' shot-creation, even if their overall efficiency is likely to see a boost. All this means Sanders will likely have to develop more of a classic low-post offense if he's going to become a primary scoring option. We've already seen John Henson showcase how valuable his length can be on offense, but he's already a more versatile player than Sanders on that end, even if the results aren't always pretty. A reliable hook shot would be a big boost for Sanders, or simply packing on more muscle and bullying his way under the basket. The key will be good ball movement and position to get him close to the rim with his defender off balance, allowing Sanders to use his length to go right over defenders.
Mid-Range Jump Shot
We've frequently said that ditching his jumper was the best thing Sanders did last season, but the numbers show that the change wasn't actually as dramatic as it seemed. In 2011/2012, 32% of his shot attempts were jumpers, of which he made about 22%. In 2012/2013, jumpers made up a little under 31% and he made about 30% of them. That's still too many jumpers for such a poor conversion rate, and his overall efficiency was only buoyed by a huge jump in dunks and layups. So when it comes to jump shots, the first priority has to be upping his field-goal percentage to at least 40%. Until that happens, any potential floor-spacing benefits will be outweighed by a dumpster full of missed shots. On paper, the Bucks' starting lineup shouldn't have much trouble spacing the floor, with four above-average shooters surrounding Sanders. But if Henson and Sanders are to spend significant minutes on the court together, things might get a little cramped. Henson shot just 25% on jumpers as a rookie, so both guys have some work to do.
Surrounded by three-point shooters, Sanders could find himself in a situation reminiscent of the Orlando Magic's "one in, four out" system, where Dwight Howard pulled defenders close to the rim to open up three-point shooters. Sanders is no Dwight Howard, but a similar opportunity could present itself if he commands a little more defensive attention this season. Unfortunately passing isn't a strong piece of Sanders' game, as his 9.9 assist rate was a few ticks below average for 20 mpg centers, according to Hoopdata.com. He's never averaged more than 2 assists per 36 minutes and his turnover rate has never been lower than his assist rate. Passing is a difficult thing to learn, and rarely gets drilled heavily for young big men. But with Larry's height and length, a little more attention and patience with the ball could do wonders an offense stocked with good spot-up shooters. Howard's success in Orlando was predicated on his commanding double-teams and having the vision to find open shooters. Sanders doesn't get that sort of respect on offense yet, but he can still trigger a few plays from the high or low post if defenders take a step too far inside. New head coach Larry Drew runs an offensive system that emphasizes ball movement, but he doesn't have Al Horford or Josh Smith inside anymore. Sanders' development as a passer could ease the transition.