It has been quite a year for [clears throat] LARRY SANDERS!. He broke out last season, blowing away his previous minutes totals, cutting his once astronomical foul rate, cleaning the defensive glass, and scaring the hell out of any opponent who dared enter the lane. Milwaukee’s defense collapsed whenever SANDERS! hit the bench, and his rare combination of elite rim protection and deft footwork against the pick-and-roll earned him a monster extension that kicks in next season. He is now the face of the Milwaukee Bucks, as strange as that sounds.
The debut of the funky-as-ever Bucks did not go well Wednesday night against the Knicks. Brandon Knight tweaked his hamstring less than two minutes into the game, SANDERS! barely played because of foul trouble (that old bugaboo), and a feisty group of reserves couldn’t complete a comeback down the stretch.
After the game, SANDERS! sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
I know the new, bigger checks don’t kick in until next season, but did you buy anything to celebrate the new extension?
No, not yet. When it’s real.
Nothing? Come on, man.
It’s not real yet.
Do you at least have an idea for a big, celebratory purchase? A car? A work of art? I know you’re into art.
I’ll probably buy a new house. But it’s not real to me yet. Once I see it, I’ll believe it.
You must live in a nice enough house now.
Well, an apartment. A condo.
Ah, so you want the stand-alone property.
Yeah, something for my kids.
How many kids do you have?
I have a boy now and a I have a girl on the way.
Back to hoops: I watched a lot of film of you over the summer, when your extension was in the works. I knew you were a very good defender, obviously. But I was struck by how good your footwork was in the pick-and-roll, when you slide over to contain those little point guards. They always try to fake out big guys with hesitation dribbles, head fakes, stuff like that. And you never take the bait. You move right with them. It’s like they are looking in the mirror.
How do you learn footwork and balance like that? Do you just have it? Did it come from playing some other sport as a kid?
As a child, when I first began to play basketball, everyone in the neighborhood were guards. So, I was playing with them, and had to guard them and adjust to their quickness. It was just me against them, at a basic level, without me knowing much at all about basketball. And the confidence just built from there.
It’s like you can anticipate what they are going to do. You don’t get fooled very often.
Yeah, I mean, I want to guard 'em myself. I like to switch off on them, actually.
Did you want to guard LeBron during the playoffs last year?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Did you ask the coaches?
It didn’t get to that point. During the regular season, I tried to.
They had Ekpe Udoh on him now and then in the regular season. Why not you?
When we play 'em again, I’d like to guard him — especially when they switch him down to the [power forward] spot.
Which pick-and-roll combinations — of point guard and big man — do you just dread when you see them coming up on the schedule? Which point guards are harder to contain than fans might think?
OK, well, anytime [Steve] Nash is coming off the pick-and-roll, it’s bad.
Yep, still. It’s because of his pace. He’s not rushing. He’s just surveying, looking for gaps, passing through those gaps. He’s such a good passer. And D-Rose.
Oh, yeah. And, man, coming off those pick-and-rolls at full speed. He’s one of those guys, when he comes around that pick, you have to be totally locked in on him. He’s so quick, if he gets his shoulder past you, it’s over.
You know who else is really nice on the pick-and-roll? Mike Conley.
What makes him so good, in your view?
His decision-making. Guards that make good decisions out of the pick-and-roll are just deadly. Options open up. He’s really good at keeping the big man in front of him.
Sort of stringing you out, you mean — keeping his dribble alive so you have to keep guarding him?
Yeah, yeah. And he’s got two guys on him now. Guys who can do that, and make good decisions are deadly.
And that puts you in a tough position, right? You have to cut off Conley without losing track of your guy rolling to the rim. That’s tough.
And that was a big emphasis for this game tonight, since Tyson [Chandler] is so good going to the rim, catching those lobs over the top. I’m sure that James Harden–Dwight Howard combination is going to be really, really tough to guard.
At least they are in the other conference.
Thankfully, yeah. But it’ll be brutal when we play them.
Let’s flip it around: When you signed your extension, I talked to your GM, John Hammond, about your offense in the pick-and-roll. We both noticed how you have this habit of pausing to hold your pick an extra half-second or so, to make sure you really hit the defensive player, and how that sort of delays your rolls to the rim. John told me he watched you at USA Basketball with Larry Drew, and found himself saying, “Just go, Larry! Go!” Is that something you want to work on — cutting to the hoop sooner?
It is. It’s about pace. It’s timing. When the guard is coming off a screen, you kinda want to go with him right away. But it depends on the guard. Sometimes you might want to wait and go behind him, and let him attract more attention. Like with Monta [Ellis], he likes to come off pick-and-rolls so fast, he attracts so much attention, so I’d wait a second, and then I’d be open. I’m trying to find a rhythm now with all our guards — when I can just go, when I should stop and go. Sometimes when I just screen and just go hard, the other team is waiting on it. They already have a help defender there. They are ready for that.
So there’s no passing lane to you.
Yeah. But if I can wait for an extra second, and hold up, and have the guard string it out, that [help defender] is gonna leave and go back to his man in the corner. And then I roll. It’s all about timing.
What else should we look for from you on offense this season? A post-up move? The return of your jumper?
Yeah, I want to get more solid with that sweeping hook in the lane. And my face-up jumper. Just a simple thing like that.
Can you and John Henson play together on offense? How will you space the floor? Who goes where?
I’d probably be primarily the pick-and-roll guy, and he’s going to be the replace guy. His midrange jumper is nice.
By that you mean, you set the screen for Brandon or O.J. [Mayo], roll to the basket, and John pops up from the baseline to the free throw line area you just vacated, right?
What’s the weakest part of your defense?
Staying out of foul trouble. [Laughs and bows his head.]
Yeah, that didn’t go great tonight, I guess.
Especially on a day like today, coming out in the second half [down 25], I wanted to be extra physical, and I got called for two right away. You just have to be heady about it.
But in the bigger picture: How did you learn to avoid fouls? It’s easy to learn to do something. How do you learn not to do something? Was there a particular thing you taught yourself to avoid, like biting on pump fakes or something?
No, not really. To be honest, I played the same. I don’t know if I can say this, but I mean, I think the refs just let me play more.
I think we’ve seen that a bit with Roy Hibbert, too.
Yeah. They just let me play more.
Have you learned any new languages with all the international guys here.
I’m trying, man. I really am!
I’m trying to learn from Miroslav [Raduljica].
What’s he speak?
That’s supposed to be a really hard language.
Oh, yeah, it’s hard. And I’m trying to teach Giannis [Antetokounmpo] some words, too.
I saw him asking for his socks after the game, only he couldn’t remember the English word for it. He’s so young!
Do you ever stop paying attention in huddles to watch what Bango, your mascot, is up to in home games?
Yeah, I do. Oh, yeah. I watch out for Bango, because I know he’s got some excitement in store. I like that guy. He gets the fans really into it.
Have you ever been concerned for his personal safety?
No, no. He’s a pretty athletic dude.
After the playoffs last season, all sorts of reports came out about how “combustible” the Bucks’ locker room had become. What does that mean?
You just don’t know what you’re gonna get. Unexpected attitudes. You can’t expect guys to be on the same page. A lot of randomness. A lot of personal agendas. And that’s detrimental. It’s hard for a team.
Just that you don’t know what that day is going to entail for the group. We never set a standard for ourselves, as far as our identity, how we felt about things. People were just all over the place.
How’s this group so far?
It’s good. I mean, I think we know who we are, and that we have to work, or, excuse my tone, we’ll get our ass kicked. If we don’t gather some camaraderie, and play the game hard, we’re gonna get our ass kicked. That’s how this league is. Guys are just too good.
How’s your pick-and-roll chemistry with Brandon Knight? He’s a much different player than Monta or Brandon Jennings.
It’s good. Brandon has a lot of skills. He’s very quick with the ball. He’s able to get into the interior defense and make plays from there. He looks to do that. Using him at the top, in the screen-and-roll, I know he’s going to attack, get low with the ball, take it in strong. If he can finish, he will.
He has a little tic on the pick-and-roll: When he dribbles to his right around a pick, he likes to cross back over to his left, and dribble to the middle of the floor near the foul line. But that got him in the way of his big men rolling to the rim in Detroit, sort of cluttering it all up. Have you noticed that?
Yeah, but that’s what we were talking about earlier — about stopping and going. If we get to know each other, and I know he’s going to cut right across me on the pick-and-roll, I gotta wait up for him, and then go. I can’t just dive right into him, make him travel, or make him lose the ball. It’s about him being comfortable, because he has the ball in his hands. I have to adjust to him.
Back to your jumper: Are we going to see it again this season? It’s sort of been coached out of your game. Are you going to be mostly a dive guy on the pick-and-roll?
I’m gonna be a dive guy, but I believe in my jump shot. I think it’s something [that] will progress. Right now, I’ve put it back in the closet a little bit, so that I can tune it up in the gym. The thing about a game is, you may only have three jump shots. You may only have two. If you miss those two, you can’t shoot jumpers anymore.
You mean, that’s your mentality?
No, that’s just kind of how it is when you’re a big guy, a big player, and you miss a couple. But I’m gonna keep working on it.
You have any specific goals for this year — Defensive Player of the Year, a certain percentage from the foul line, something like that?
No, I don’t have any goals that specific. I just want us to do good. I want us to win.
Your old agent [Andy Miller] is suing your new agent, alleging the new guys [Happy Walters and Relativity Sports] made promises and threw lavish parties to steal you away from Miller. Did you know that lawsuit was coming?
Well, I kinda did. The agent I was with before [Miller], I expressed to him that he wasn’t doing his job up to par. I complained to him about his services. So I decided to leave him. And at that point, I’m agent-less. “I should go get an agent.” But I don’t know, that’s between them.
What do you mean by “services”?
I wanted communication between him and my GM. I wanted the negotiation process to begin earlier. I wanted some kind of talk, some kind of feedback. He was really lacking on that. I wasn’t comfortable. I gave him chance after chance, and I just had to fire him.
I have to conclude with this: I started writing your name on Grantland in all caps, and with an exclamation point at the end. It has randomly caught on. The Bucks tell me they use it sometimes in internal communications. Do you know about this?
Yeah, yeah, I do. That’s awesome.
And, most importantly: Are you OK with it?
Oh, yeah! That’s fine! It’s cool.
Good. I mean, I just felt like your game merited that kind of treatment. Part of that was the emphatic shot blocks, but I have to admit, the stuff with the referees and the ejections played into it.
That’s funny. But it’s cool. Keep doing it.