Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders is not a perfect player, but he's better than he has shown during 2012 Las Vegas Summer League action. With Sanders on the floor last season, the Bucks were 7.5 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents and they were 2.0 pts/ 100 possession worse with him on the bench (a net +9.5 pts/ 100 poss rating and a total of +186 points over his 643 minutes). The differential was most pronounced on the defensive end, where the Bucks allowed a whopping 11.6 pts/100 fewer with Sanders on the court (though they were 2.1 pts/100 worse offensively with Sanders). Part of that is no doubt driven by the fact that Sanders often replaced defensive sieve Drew Gooden, but the Bucks' positive differential with Sanders in the game can't be dismissed. Furthermore, Milwaukee also blocked an additional five percent of opponents' shots and forced teams to shoot a whopping 9.6 percent worse (using eFG%) with the No. 15 pick from the 2010 NBA Draft on the court.
Does Sanders have a tendency to foul a lot? Definitely. He only played 12.4 minutes per game in 2011-12, but if you extrapolate his stats over 36 minutes he would have averaged 7.4 fouls per 36 minutes last season. Well actually, he wouldn't have averaged 7.4 fouls because that's clearly too many. When the whistle blows during the action it's an obvious thing for us to pick on with regards to the lanky youngster, but it's important to remember the companion stats posted in the first paragraph when the foul argument emerges. Larry Sanders still has value.
Again, Larry Sanders still has value. To be fair, it's mostly on defense. John Hammond told the TV crew during the Wizards game that Sanders needs to keep things simple on offense, hang around the rim and fight for putbacks. I wholeheartedly agree (read: no more long jumpers). Hammond's directives represent the reasonable extent of Sanders' offensive potential in the NBA. Recall what I wrote about his ventures outside the paint just a few weeks ago:
Larry Sanders has stone hands and is generally an awful offensive player -- his 46.3 TS% from last season is the lowest of anyone on the roster; only Beno Udrih has a higher turnover rate -- but his defensive ability and versatility makes him somewhat valuable. For anyone thinking he can be a stretch PF option, just know that he is a career 31.1 percent shooter from 16-23 feet (42/135) and a 29.5 percent career shooter from 3-15 feet (33/112). It's ugly. Real ugly.
Make no mistake, my support for Larry Sanders is almost solely founded on his defensive impact. Ever since his rookie season I have maintained that he contests jumpshots more effectively than anyone I've ever seen -- for reference, he held opponents to just 0.57 points per possession on spot-up jumpers last season and 0.70 ppp in 10-11 (the No. 4 and No. 7 marks in the NBA, respectively), according to MySynergySports.com.
So why hasn't Sanders been able to turn himself into an effective garbage man on offense yet? Part it has to do with the lower-level impact of his new assignment -- garbage men typically don't dominate summer league games or stand out, versatile scorers do. Most of it has to do with a deeper problem that quickly becomes apparent when looking at his rebounding numbers.
To put it gently, Sanders is an underwhelming rebounder. If we call him a center, he posted the No. 50 total rebound rate out of 70 qualifying NBA centers who played at least 10 games and averaged 10 or more minutes per game. For defensive rebounding he measured up at No. 57 overall from that same group. If we call him a power forward, he's still below average with respect to his defensive and total rebound rates (although he did rebound fairly well on the offensive glass last season). Now consider that his rebounding rates from last season were far better than the ones he generated in his rookie season. See the problem?
When I reflect on Larry's lack of execution as a garbage man and general lack of production on the glass, the immortal words of Woody Allen come to mind: "eighty percent of success is showing up." Larry Sanders simply isn't showing up enough in the paint and the restricted area. Here's a bit of the glowing praise I recently bestowed upon John Henson after the Wizards game:
Henson often plays as if the restricted area exerts a keen gravitational pull on him. I rarely spotted the rookie outside the paint when the ball hit the rim, which may be the most impressive thing about his rebounding performance. Despite numerous offensive and defensive assignments on the perimeter, he always worked back to the rim as the shot clock wound down and often got his hands on the ball.
I can't say those things about Sanders right now, but there's no good reason why I shouldn't be able to say them about him. Of all the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Failing Tube Men on the Bucks, he is the wackiest and the waviest (and his combine measurements back that up). He just needs to show up more often. Anyone can show up. If Sanders finds a way to wire his brain like Henson, he has the physical tools to get better as a garbage man and a rebounder. At some point skill factors into the level of execution, but Sanders is in a place where he can quickly get better at his role if he just makes it a point to get into the restricted area more frequently.
I broke down some film on Sanders from the games against the Hornets (1 OREB) and Wizards (1 OREB) and decided to isolate his rebounding position when the ball was released by the shooter on the offensive end of the floor -- the focus is on true half court looks, not the fast breaks or broken plays.
He is highlighted with an box when out of position and with color coverage when in the paint. There are two .GIF files with three-second holds for each image, so take a look and see if you agree with my analysis from above.
Here's the key point: in the 17 separate plays shown below, Larry Sanders got himself into good position only four times. That's unacceptable. It's not something I should be able to point out or say about Sanders. He really needs to show up more often. It's time, Larry. If you don't do it, John Henson and Ekpe Udoh certainly will.