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Fantasy Friday: Can Larry Sanders be valuable without scoring?

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Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Note: Even though this is a sponsored post with affiliate links, all of the opinions contained in this post are my own and are based purely on my own hunches, guesses, and whatever my cat tells me to do. And as an FYI, FanDuel gave me some cash to play its daily fantasy games.

He's hardly the most high-profile player on the roster, but so far this season the Milwaukee Bucks have gone as Larry Sanders has gone. The team has been terrific on defense, with top-10 rankings in opponent eFG% and turnover rate. But they've struggled offensively, shooting the ball poorly and struggling to get to the free-throw line consistently.

Great defense, bad offense. Sounds an awful lot like Milwaukee's starting center. Sanders hasn't seemed to miss a beat defensively after last year's nightmare season, but he's been a borderline disaster on offense. He's shooting under 40% from the floor, a stunning number considering nearly 75% of his shots have come within 3 feet of the basket. Sanders isn't asked to do much for the Bucks beyond anchor the defense, so the damage has been somewhat limited, but it's definitely concerning.

So what about from a fantasy perspective? Has Sanders' offensive malaise been enough to irredeemably damage his value? Let's take a quick look at how he ranks at his position so far, and consider what sort of trends might affect his future value.

According to ESPN Player Rater, Sanders has been the 25th-best center in fantasy basketball so far this season, deriving essentially all his value from blocks, rebounds...and steals. The first two were to be expected, but Sanders' steal rate has more than doubled compared to his career average. He's averaging 1.6 swipes per game and 2.5 per 36 minutes, a number that compares favorably to many of the leagues top point guards and wings. There hasn't been a big outlier game to mess with the numbers--he's recorded two, three, or four steals in five of his eight games (though he had zeros in the other three).

That unexpected knack for thievery has helped make up for the shooting struggles (and then some), and fantasy owners haven't taken much of hit in the percentage categories because Sanders still shoots relatively infrequently. But the question of sustainability is an important one in both fantasy and real life basketball, so how likely is it these surprising trends will continue?

In both cases...well, not at all. Last season only one qualified center posted a STL% over even 2.0--DeMarcus Cousins at 2.4. Sanders' number is as clear a small-sample-size artifact as they come. The Bucks are forcing more turnovers as a whole under Jason Kidd, which was something of a hallmark of his Nets squad last year, but that was accomplished primarily via smallball tactics and enhanced perimeter pressure. Sanders could benefit from picking up an handful of loose balls he wouldn't normally see in a different system, but even then we could only really project a minor jump.

Luckily for Sanders and the Bucks, his dreadful shooting isn't likely to stick around either. After hitting about 62% of his shots within 3 feet over his first four seasons, Sanders isn't even sinking half of his close-in shots this season. He also hasn't made a single shot between three and ten feet from the hoop this year. A few more notable numbers: Sanders is being assisted on the lowest percentage of made field goals for his entire career, just 52.4%. In addition, he's had 9 of his own shots blocked in 8 games, more than double the rate he was rejected in his breakout junior season. All those numbers are likely to gradually regress back near Sanders' career averages. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's thought while watching the Bucks, "There's no way Larry continues to miss all these layups." He may not be great, but he's better than this.

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