Before he became a shot-blocking demon, before he became a fan favorite in Milwaukee, before he even started playing basketball seriously, Larry Sanders was into skateboards.
The artist in him was drawn to the colorful skating culture and he still enjoys designing board covers and assembling boards to this day. He has always done his sketches in pen, not pencil, an approach that instilled a heightened sense of patience that would serve him well once he arrived in the NBA.
The 6-foot-11 Sanders was able to keep his head up through two frustratingly lackluster seasons, through a lockout that had him about a week away from taking a job in Europe and through the acquisition of two higher profile players who play his position. Now in year three, Sanders has asserted himself as one of the building blocks for a young team and the leading shot blocker in the NBA.
"I draw with a pen. If I mess up I have to throw the paper away," Sanders said. "There's no eraser for me. I can't get frustrated with that. I couldn't get too angry and upset. I just had to keep working at it. Maybe that did create a sense of patience in me that transferred to the game."
Sanders was drafted 15th overall out of Virginia Commonwealth in 2010, with the Bucks taking a chance on a raw big man with considerable athletic gifts. He struggled to acclimate to the NBA in his first two years, averaging under 15 minutes per game in both seasons while dealing with foul trouble on most nights. He averaged 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in his second season, giving the team little confidence that he was headed in the right direction.
"My first year I felt OK. My second year was really rocky for me, especially after coming off the summer where we were locked out," Sanders said. "A lot of issues. I didn't know where I was going to live, there were a lot of things that came up that were so unusual. I didn't have my pro habits established. I didn't know really how much it took and what I had to prepare for."
The Bucks brought in veteran center Sam Dalembert and drafted 6-foot-11 John Henson out of North Carolina to be the primary big men this season, a clear message to Sanders that he better pick it up, and fast. And Sanders did just that. He spent time in the summer working on his hands and his quickness going to the basket from his low-post position, then showed he was a different player right from the start this year.
He averaged 12.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in the first five games, establishing himself as an important piece to a young roster.
"That was huge for me to have a good start, especially with the roster the set up," Sanders said. "I didn't want to get buried. I put in a lot of work and it was good to see it coming back."
Sanders is averaging 3.2 blocks per game, well ahead of Serge Ibaka (2.8) for the league lead. He had a triple-double — including 10 blocks — against the Timberwolves on Nov. 30, had 17 points and 20 rebounds against the Celtics on Dec. 21 and had an incredible stretch of 25 blocks in a five-game stretch earlier this month.
"He had to learn he couldn't reach as much, how to block a shot, when to follow through," Bucks assistant Joe Wolf said. "Those are things only experience can teach you."
With long arms, knobby elbows and an elongated gate, Sanders still looks at times like a young Buck trying to find his legs while he gallops through the paint in pursuit of the next block. But his defensive positioning, timing ability to avoid foul trouble all have improved dramatically, which has helped Milwaukee (22-18) weather coach Scott Skiles' departure and remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
"He always worked hard and you could tell he was going to be a good player," point guard Brandon Jennings said. "It's been fun to watch him take a big step this year and become a key part of our team and of our success."
In doing so, Sanders has endeared himself to a blue-collar town that embraces the underdog.
"It's a hard-working city, underdog in a sense," Sanders said. "Great place. Tough place. Tough people here. You have to be. I was walking out the door today and looked at my phone and it was minus-2 outside."
And Sanders has found a way to get his creativity off the court to translate to his game, viewing shot-blocking as an art form in its own right.
"I like to think of angles and meeting the opponent at the backboard," Sanders said. "It feels like an art, the way engineers connect the dots in a sense."
Freelance writer Mark Kass in Milwaukee contributed to this story.
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