Most of the people reading this sentence understand that Larry Sanders is more valuable than his 9.8 point-per-game and 9.5 rebound-per-game averages dictate.
Not only did the previously disappointing third-year Milwaukee Bucks center finish as the second-leading shot blocker in the NBA last season, but a landmark presentation at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference showed that he was also among the league's best at causing teams to shoot a low percentage on shots at the rim. To top it all off, he signed a four-year, $44 million extension in August.
Sanders' ability to alter shots at the rim is very real. Here's five minutes of him forcing missed layups without actually blocking the shots, set to Kansas' "Carry On (My Wayward Son)."
But I'm not interested in reliving Sanders' rise last season. I'd like to explore how he is able to alter shots so well.
Sanders shed some light on this topic in an interview with CBS Sports' Matt Moore in late February:
When it comes to blocking shots, it's more about the angles of the player on offense. Whatever angle they're taking to attack the rim, and whatever angle they're attacking the backboard, or what angle they're attacking the rim to dunk it. I try to adjust and meet them at that angle.
Sanders is specifically talking about blocking shots, but the same strategy holds true when he's just trying to contest them. It's a fine strategy that is rarely put in those specific terms by players. A shot-alterer's path depends on the ball-handler's trajectory by nature. They're tasked with repelling an attack, after all. Sanders is one of the few players who can verbalize this.
The "how," though, is important. Two characteristics help explain why Sanders is much better at repelling attacks than most NBA centers.
In order to properly adjust to the angle of an attacking player, one must possess the ability to get his body in position. Doing that requires quick feet. This is where many centers struggle; as an example, it's impossible for, say, Roy Hibbert to stay with a quick, penetrating guard. The Pacers compensate beautifully for this shortcoming by stationing Hibbert unusually far back on their pick-and-roll coverages, allowing him to swallow up the rim without being worried about mid-range jumpers and floaters. It works for them. But it's still a shortcoming that Hibbert must carry, even if his size makes up for it.
Sanders, though, has the lateral quickness to square up defenders when they attack the rim without having to just hang back at the basket. Like any shot-blocker, he'll fly in from the side every so often, but for the most part, he moves his feet to cut off the angle before contesting with his arms. Almost every shot alter you see in the above video comes because Sanders beat his defender to the spot and then raised his arms. This is in contrast to many other shot-blockers like JaVale McGee, who deliberately surrender positioning in an attempt to swoop in from the side.
And Sanders is especially good at using angles to wall off his man. Consider where Sanders is just before Al Horford catches this pass.
Horford gives Sanders a pump fake, which would have prompted many players to take a step towards Horford, if not fly out by him. But Sanders knows that Horford prefers to go to the rim, and instead of sliding out, he uses the space he's afforded to slide down to the spot that Horford is looking to elevate to the basket.
By the time Horford is ready to shoot, Sanders has already assumed his position and prepared his skyscraper-sized arms. It's very hard to score over the top of him when he's already all set up.
About those arms: they are unique. But it's one thing to have Sanders' wingspan. It's another to use it as well as he does.
This photo, from a Nets-Bucks game in mid-February, was one of my favorites from last season.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
If you ignore Deron Williams concealing the action, you can see up close why Sanders poses such a problem for offensive players. He's a titanic obstacle in mid-air, maintaining his verticality as perfectly as one can while still being off the ground. Not only are his arms straight, but his entire body is stretched as well. He's as functionally tall as he can possibly be. Very few centers are able to jump and maintain their verticality. Sanders can. That makes it difficult for ball-handlers to adopt the traditional strategy against shot-blockers: attacking them straight on into their body.
But the most impressive thing about Sanders is that he can stay vertical even in positions that aren't as basic as this. It's one thing to maintain your verticality when it's a matter of meeting a straight-on ball-handler by lifting both arms up; it's another to do the same from other angles or with only one arm. Sanders is able to avoid fouls -- he chopped his fouls/36 minutes in half last year, and the biggest reason it was even that high is that the horrid Bucks' perimeter defense allowed so much dribble penetration to him last year that some fouls are an inevitability -- because he can also address the ball-handler or post player that tries to finish around him.
Here's a great picture showing how Sanders can maintain verticality with one arm.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Again: Sanders is as functionally tall as he can possibly be, except this time, the angle dictates that he only can use one arm to alter the shot. Many shot-blockers swat down at the ball with one arm, drawing fouls. Sanders has become so good at resisting that temptation, at least until he thinks he can actually get the ball and not a piece of the offensive player's body.
Most importantly, Sanders is able to move his arms -- whether it's both or just one -- laterally while maintaining verticality. Take his altering of Gordon Hayward's layup, which happened at the 1:09 mark of the above video. This is Sanders' arm position as Hayward starts charging into him.
As in the previous photo, Sanders' right arm is vertical as Hayward attacks his body. But watch what happens as Hayward tries to maneuver around Sanders' right arm and finish off the glass.
Sanders' arm has moved right with Hayward's drive ... and he's still maintained something close to verticality as he does it. Sanders' right arm is now in a position right in front of the basket as he's hovering in mid-air, and while it's not quite at the same 180-degree angle it was before, it's close enough to straight, to the point that most referees would let the play carry on unless Sanders obviously struck Hayward on his body somewhere.
Very few big men, if any, are able to move their arms laterally while maintaining verticality like this. That's what makes Sanders such a brilliant shot-alterer.
Time will tell if Sanders can develop the rest of his game, but if he duplicates the year he had last season, he'll be worth his $44 million extension. Few qualities are as valuable as rim protection, and almost no other big man is as technically proficient in that area as Sanders.