TORONTO -- "I think it's just you have to believe," said Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders after Sunday's game against the Toronto Raptors. He was talking about blocking shots -- the thing he does 3.2 times per game, more frequently than anyone else in the NBA -- but he might as well have been talking about his journey. Sanders was seen a foul-prone, shot-blocking question mark for his first two years in the league. Now in Year 3, he has a triple double, a 17-point, 20-rebound performance and 19 starts under his belt. He's answered the question of whether or not he belongs as emphatically as one of his trademark rejections.
"You have to believe that you can block it," Sanders said. "A lot of times, the ball may seem too far away from you and you might not want to jump, but I have to believe in my length and that I'll be able to go get it."
After Milwaukee's 107-96 win, Bucks head coach Jim Boylan called Sanders' fourth quarter performance "phenomenal" and "the difference in the game". Sanders scored six of his 11 points and grabbed seven of his eight rebounds in the fourth and sealed the victory with two highlight plays in the final few minutes -- a block on DeMar DeRozan which led to a three-pointer, followed by an alley-oop dunk assisted by Brandon Jennings.
Before the game, Sanders -- who designs skateboards on the side and has been described as a "rare creative goofball" -- spoke with SB Nation:
SB NATION: Coach Boylan said he's never seen as sudden a transformation as he's seen from you. How much of your improvement is because you've been given more of an opportunity, and how much is because you're a better player than before?
LARRY SANDERS: "I think it's a little bit of both. A little bit of opportunity, but it really came from working hard. I put myself in a better position than I had before. I had a really good summer and got a chance to work on a lot of things for myself -- pace, my mental [approach] off the court -- and really get prepared for a solid season. Not like the year before, when you had the lockout and it was a different kind of summer. So I got a chance to really sit down and focus and I think it helped a lot."
SB NATION: When you say you were working on the mental part, what was the difference?
LARRY SANDERS: "Being a pro. Learning those pro habits, something I hadn't developed yet within myself. In the summer I developed myself by creating my own routines, taking care of my body and myself, things like that. And then mentally setting down and being more grounded around my family. Things like that helped a lot."
SB NATION: When you were working on your game, was this season what you were envisioning? How far along are you compared to where you want to be?
LARRY SANDERS: "I don't know, I always see progress in myself and I want to see more progress. I think I can become a lot better than I am right now. To me, I feel like maybe a little bit over halfway, maybe halfway there. Reaching my potential is going to take a lot more work and I'm prepared for that. I'm just going to keep working hard and we'll see where I end up."
SB NATION: Where do you still want to improve? People talk about your offense, but what about defense -- you're leading the league in blocks, but are there still nuances you're trying to get down on that end?
LARRY SANDERS: "Yeah, definitely. I want to be able to switch out and guard different positions. I want to be an all-around defensive player and offensively, I want to do certain things to help the offense that certain players really can't do. Try to use my skills and my quickness to open the floor for my teammates by diving hard and things like that, being able to finish around the basket better. Really, all aspects -- I want to handle the ball better, I want to shoot the ball better but right now I'm really focusing on the defensive end."
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
SB NATION: People are comparing you to Tyson Chandler now -- [Bucks general manager] John Hammond said it and it was in Lee Jenkins' Sports Illustrated article. Do you like that comparison or is it more like you just want to be your own dude?
LARRY SANDERS: "Just be my own dude. Just be the best player I can, given my skillset, given what I believe I can do. Just being the best player I can be. And I don't think I've -- like I said, I think I've got halfway there. Who I envision myself as, as a player, is really not like any other player in the league."
SB NATION: [Boston Celtics coach] Doc Rivers called you a terrific basketball player and said he'd called his son, Austin Rivers, to tell him to watch out for you blocking shots. He's not the only opposing coach to talk about you this way -- do you think there's been a shift in the way people think/talk about your game?
LARRY SANDERS: "I think before it was a lot of ‘potential' talk. Potential is dangerous. It's a dangerous word. Coaches know that can either go nowhere or that can fulfill itself and I think now they see the progress, see me making progress toward reaching my potential. That's exciting for them because that's something that you want to see a player with potential do -- ultimately, keep becoming better. That's what I want to keep trying to do: keep becoming better and try to fill out that potential."
SB NATION: When you look at your own defensive game on tape, are you looking more at blocks or are you looking at changed shots and guys taking jump shots instead of going into the paint?
LARRY SANDERS: "When I look at myself, I look at everything. But if I'm looking at blocks I'm more so looking at the offensive player and how they're attacking -- whether they're looking this way, away from the rim, leaning in -- to see where the ball ends up for me to go get it. It's natural, but I know I can become better."
SB NATION: When you weren't getting as many minutes as you wanted to, how'd you deal with it?
LARRY SANDERS: "I'd say at first it was kind of frustrating. It would frustrate me. After a while, I kind of realized that it's out of my control. I can only control how hard I work, the effort I put into it. I can't really control if I'm in the game or out of the game. It's up to someone else. I just kept my mind focused on those things -- what I can control, me getting better, not wasting too much energy focusing on things I can't change, you know what I mean? That helped me out a lot. It helped me stay patient and ready."
SB NATION: What's the most important thing you learned from Scott Skiles while he was your coach?
LARRY SANDERS: "Take advantage of your opportunity. Definitely. That's one that I think he teaches is take advantage of your opportunity. Because you never know when your name is going to be called and it might be called and then you might do well and you still might not play as much, but you have to stick with it. Don't let discouragement find a home."
SB NATION: Milwaukee fans have chanted your name this season. What does it feel like to have them embrace you like they have?
LARRY SANDERS: "I love Milwaukee. I feel like I'm their adopted child. I don't mind that at all, I love it there, I love the fans. They show great support and we would love to see more. It's increasing with our success, the city's getting really excited. That's something that's good to see. It's my third year there, it's the first time we've actually seen the city really behind us like this. It's a great feeling."
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
SB NATION: Earlier, I asked you for three things that define you that have nothing to do with basketball -- the first thing you said was art and creativity, the second was music and the third was your son and your family. Why those?
LARRY SANDERS: "Art and creativity, because I feel like those are the only things you can truly own. It's your creativity. It's something that you own, really, in this world. Everything else is either given to you or can be taken away. But what you create yourself comes from inside of you. Music, I feel like that's one of the most important things that we have here on earth -- there's nothing really like music. My family is the most important thing to me."
SB NATION: I found this blog post you wrote interesting, talking about wanting to be different, wanting to express yourself and people judging you. What do you think people think when they see you, and what should they be seeing that they might not?
LARRY SANDERS: "It's funny because I've got all these tattoos on my body, I'm a tall guy and I might be intimidating to some people. But I'm a firm believer in your inner -- who you are on the inside, compared to who you are on the outside. I think judgment can be cast by anyone and this is what we do the most. We love to do it even though we shouldn't.
"And I think when people see me sometimes, they may cast judgment and say ‘he may be a hothead' or ‘he may be an angry guy' but I'm not. I think it's kind of funny. I think it's funny that we cast judgment and create a reality in our mind, situations that could be so far from the truth.
"I just want people to know that I'm really grounded. I'm a really humble guy. My values are the same as most people. I don't find value in money. You can use it to obtain possessions but at the end of your life when you're sitting in that rocking chair, if you're looking at your family then you're happy. You're not looking at your bank account.
"So my value is in people and experiences and relationships, love and my family. That's where I find true value. And expression, the way we express ourselves, our creativity, things like that. Those are things we should really value. It's not how much it's worth, it's how much effort you put into it and what is it worth to you. Not what you can sell it for. I just wish people would appreciate that more."
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
In the bonus:
Some other notable quotes about Larry Sanders:
Boylan, on seeing Sanders grow: "I'm really happy for Larry because I like him. He's a good guy and I'm glad that the light went on somewhere. He knows what he needs to do to make himself better and he went out this past summer and he did that.
"After Summer League, which he didn't particularly play well in, he went out and got himself in really good shape and came back and was able to take advantage of being comfortable now with the NBA a little bit, understanding how to be successful. And his ability to get himself in that kind of condition enables [him] to stay out on the floor longer, play and think at the same time, not make the mental mistakes and the physical mistakes that fatigue can bring on sometimes.
"And combine that with the fact that he's been in the league for a few years and now suddenly you realize that, ‘I can get some things done around here with my length, my activity, my running, all those things and play to [my] strength,' which is what he's been doing."
Bucks big man Ekpe Udoh, fellow shot blocker: "Larry is playing ball right now. He is doing a good job, working hard. He worked hard to get to this point. You gotta keep building on it. It's always fun when we get out there -- we cover each other's backs and have the little block parties that we give out invites to."
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, on how to gameplan for Sanders: "You gotta go in there with the intent of drawing the foul or drawing contact. When you shy away from a shotblocker, that's when you put him in control. He's gonna get it. So you gotta go in there with authority, go for his body and again you gotta have actions behind him to make him pay for coming to block shots. You can't just stand there and say, ‘Oh, I'm watching The Larry Sanders Show'."