Larry Sanders is far from a perfect player, but he's pretty damn good. More importantly, he's the preeminent symbol of how John Hammond's plan can come together. Sanders has emerged as a truly inspired pick in the otherwise gooey center of the 2010 NBA Draft, and by cashing in on his physical talent he stands to earn a big raise in the near future. Hopefully his asking price is something close to the four-year, $49 million extension Serge Ibaka signed in 2012 with the Thunder, but the 24-year-old big man could still push his value even higher by building on his impressive 2012-13 season.
Sanders is the most exciting and important player on the current roster, and if you look closely he's becoming the face of the franchise. With Brandon Jennings awkwardly sandwiched between the failed Jeff Teague offer sheet and the cold world of restricted free agency, the cartoonish Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick-shaped holes in the wall at the Bradley Center, and the fragile embryonic outline of Giannis Antentokounmpo, all eyes are trained on Larry for 2013-14. He's the reason to watch. He's the reason to believe. John Henson is his sidekick, not the other way around.
The wackiest and waviest of Milwaukee's inflatable arm-flailing tube men is already a certified rim protector in the NBA with tangible defensive value, so gains in other areas of his game are what could push him to the next level. I'm excited to say that this summer he's been working on improving his hook shoot and his free throw shooting (career 58% FT), according to his interview with Shams Charania of RealGM. Then again, he's also been
wasting spending some time trying to rehabilitate his jumper (career 29.4% shooter beyond 9 feet).
But Milwaukee's one diamond has already escaped the rough, and any additional luster he gains by polishing his skills is found money. Sanders was a No. 15 overall pick, after all. And while that draft position may signal a practical limit to his upside (particularly on offense), it also marks the genesis of vital relationship that small market franchises need to cultivate in order to draw in talented players on second and third contracts.
The initial bet has paid off. The Bucks are the team that had faith in Sanders and provided him with a chance to succeed. Sanders is mid-round pick that has since offered new hope to a team stuck in no-man's land. The big man sounds like he appreciates his place in Milwaukee, which is a huge deal for a franchise like the Bucks (via RealGM):
"I definitely can spend my career there," Sanders told RealGM. "Milwaukee adopted me when I got drafted and the people there took me in and showed me nothing but love and support whether I played or not. It's awesome now to give that back to them, give them something to watch and entertainment."
The unique relationship teams can build with successful prospects passed on by other teams in the draft is a special advantage that helps small market squads compete with the big boys. The mutual loyalty and trust built up by giving fringe players their shot at stardom is the foundation of Indiana's rise in the East. Roy Hibbert and Paul George see the Pacers as their team. In Milwaukee, Sanders not only seems to grasp where he stands with the Bucks, but also where the team exists in the NBA hierarchy. In my opinion, Larry Sanders is saying all the right things about the Milwaukee Bucks, and he's ready to take the next step with his team:
"It is frustrating [that the Bucks have a reputation as a lowly team], but it's the reality of where we are," Sanders said. "The only way you can change that is to work toward being somewhere else. You can't let the frustration of things set in. It's not going to change where you are and it's not going to change how people perceive you.
"You have to change perception, and that's what we're doing now."
"I want people to think of us as winners, when you think of the Bucks," Sanders said. "We're building on our season from last year, keep pushing forward and adding new pieces. We're tired of being eighth seed, seventh seed, not making the playoffs. It's time to rebuild - and we've already started that process.
"I wanted to show teams here that we're building on something. We're starting a tradition. We've got young pieces. We're going to be contending for something big."
Whether John Hammond has put the Bucks in the best position to take the next step and contend for something big is another question, and Preston Schmitt recently tackled the topic in a terrific story at Bucksketball. Read it. If you come away feeling a bit down, remember that at least one element of the GM's plan has worked perfectly: Larry Sanders has blossomed into a very valuable NBA player, and he feels invested in the team's future. That type of commitment isn't something the Bucks are normally able to buy on the open market. It's also why John Hammond always aims to draft for talent and trade for need. It's nice to see at least one part of the plan coming together.
More from Brew Hoop:
- Bucks reach agreement with Gary Neal
- Bucks sign Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica
- Gustavo Ayon waived, Bucks potential cap space up to $10 million
- Bucks still interested in Brandon Jennings, Larry Sanders sprains ankle with Team USA, John Henson earns Vegas praise
- Let's remember that Brandon Jennings still has value