Larry Sanders swats his way into Milwaukee's heart


Larry Sanders swats his way into Milwaukee's heart

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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News, notes and observations from the first week of NFL Free Agency

News, notes and observations from the first week of NFL Free Agency

A whirlwind week in the NFL, but that's come to be the norm when free agency opens. Actually, not even when free agency opens, rather the legal tampering period opening two days before the actual start of the new league year. 

A lot happened, and more to come, but let's try to make sense of it all. 

  • The worst keep secret ever finally got revealed when the Redskins held their press conference to announce Alex Smith as their new starting quarterback. Everybody knows about the trade, and losing Kendal Fuller, but this trade makes a ton of sense and Smith was a homerun at the presser. He doesn't care about image or perception, a refreshing angle from the passer, and seems quite prepared for his new role. Smith was great in Kansas City in 2017. If he can replicate that in 2018 for the Redskins, the move will be loudly applauded. 
  • We still haven't gotten total clarity on Smith's contract. My intel says three years are really guaranteed, so Smith will be on the payroll through 2020 at least. Doug Williams joked at the presser that Smith could maybe play until he's 40, and since he's 33 right now, that would be a long time from now. 


  • Smith was the headline, but the Redskins also held a press conference with new WR Paul Richardson. He was possibly more impressive than Smith, just because the young speedster was more of an unknown. Smith has talked at a ton of podiums and faced a ton of reporters. I don't know, but that might have been Richardson's first ever press conference with a room that had probably 100 or more people in it. Check out the video above. 
  • Richardson had a great line when asked about the dangers of big hits on passes over the middle: "They gotta catch me." He's right. He will get a lot of opportunities for the Redskins, and he should make things better for Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder. The Redskins wideouts did not get great separation in 2017, there are Pro Football Focus stats to back that up, and the offense got bogged down because of that. In 2018, with Richardson in place as a deep threat, defenses will need to react. 
  • The key to the Redskins offense truly succeeding in 2018: Jordan Reed. If he can stay healthy, the Washington air attack looks dangerous. 
  • Smart contract structure for the Redskins with Richardson. 
  • Zach Brown's contract is a 10/10 for the Redskins. A tackling machine that can actually improve from a strong 2017 season. Getting him back changed the entire tenor of Redskins free agency, as the team went from quietly sitting out the spending sprees (minus the Richardson move) to locking up their most important defensive player. 
  • Brown back, along with Mason Foster, gives the Redskins two strong inside linebackers. It's hard to remember now, but last September, that Redskins defense looked fierce. Injuries robbed the unit of a chance to completely gel and improve, but 2018 brings a new opportunity for that.
  • Offensively, the Redskins had to invest at wide receiver in free agency. The money for Allen Robinson got crazy and the team was smart to move forward with Richardson. He fits their desired profile: Young player coming off a rookie contract on a career upswing. 
  • The Redskins did not invest at running back, despite Jay Gruden and Doug Williams saying the team must improve at the position. Frankly, the Isaiah Crowell contract with the Jets was quite affordable, and he's a player some team sources had interest in. The Redskins do not have the luxury of taking a running back early in the draft, and I'd argue they shouldn't even look at RB in the second round. The Redskins should be focused up front on the offensive and defensive lines. A dream scenario: A player like Vita Vea or Da'Ron Payne at 13, and then Ohio State interior offensive lineman Billy Price at 44. Price would have been a first-round lock but for a pectoral injury at the Scouting Combine. Medicals say he should be fine for training camp. Washington has shown a proclivity to draft players that slip due to injury concerns (Kendall Fuller in 2016, Fabian Moreau in 2017) and Price could fit the same mold. 
  • The vacancy at left guard has not been addressed, and wasn't going to be addressed in free agency, or at least not in the early days where the big money gets paid out. Washington has more than $26 million invested this season in just three players on their offensive line (Trent Williams at $14M, Morgan Moses at $5M, Brandon Scherff at almost $7M) and the team knows Scherff will cost more money soon. The Jaguars just gave Andrew Norwell $30 million guaranteed; the guard market has arrived. The 'Skins will want to keep Scherff, and to do it, they need to keep some cash on hand. That means the new left guard will either be a budget free agent find, or come from the draft.
  • To that point, the team viewed Spencer Long expendable. He was well liked by players and coaches, but has never played a full 16-game season and missed half the year in 2017. Also, the emergence of Chase Roullier helped the team move forward without Long. 


  • A bit of a surprise to see Trent Murphy leave, but he got good money from the Bills. Washington liked Murphy, and wanted to keep him, but not at the price Buffalo paid. 
  • What happened to Ryan Grant is complete junk. The Ravens are a first-class organization, but that was a bush league move. The guy has never missed a game in four years and now he can't pass a physical?!? C'mon man. Hoping the best for Ryan and will be interested to see if his represenatives seek retribution from Baltimore. 
  • Bashaud Breeland sure likes to keep it interesting. Why sign a contract if you know you have a hurt foot and can't pass a physical? Why would the agent not disclose that? Maybe it was disclosed, but that situation just seems so weird. The Redskins were never bringing Breeland back, something I reported as far back as December, but now it seems Breeland's next NFL team will have to wait to see when his foot can pass a physical. Bree is a good and funny dude, hope he heals up. 
  • Two crazy things from one draft class: The 'Skins NAILED their 2014 draft haul. Without a first round pick, they got five solid contributors in Murphy, Moses, Long, Breeland and Grant. But now, after their rookie contracts have all expired, only Moses remains with the team. Bizarre. 

  • Credit where it's due: The 2014 Draft belonged to a certain Bruce Allen. That was the year after the Shanahan crew was fired and the year before Scot McCloughan was hired. Credit where it's due. 
  • I think a Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie deal gets done. I think a Junior Galette deal might get done. 
  • Ndamukong Suh is still out there. Just saying. 
  • So is Bennie Logan. Just saying. 

Want more Redskins? Click here to follow JP on Facebook and check out @JPFinlayNBCS for live updates via Twitter! Click here for the #RedskinsTalk on Apple Podcastshere for Google Play or press play below. Don't forget to subscribe!

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Who ya got? Trotz faces tough choice in net after Holtby's strong return

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Who ya got? Trotz faces tough choice in net after Holtby's strong return

Braden Holtby has made Barry Trotz’s weekend very difficult, but in a good way.

Back-to-back games against the New York Islanders offered the Capitals an opportunity to play both Philipp Grubauer and Holtby. Grubauer stayed hot earning another win for Washington. On Friday, Holtby got his first start since March 6 and played very well.

“A win is good,” Holtby said after the game. “I felt pretty comfortable. Some things to build off of and things that I want to get better at. It was a step in the right direction.”


A 22 save effort on Friday was bookended by two big saves. The first shot Holtby faced was a turnover on the power play that led to a dangerous shorthanded scoring opportunity for John Tavares early in the first period. Then in the third, with the Capitals leading 5-3 and the Islanders trying to mount a comeback, Holtby turned aside a breakaway opportunity for star rookie Mathew Barzal.

“I thought he was pretty solid,” Trotz said. “He looked really confident.”

“I felt a lot better,” Holtby said. “Not that I was feeling horrible before, it's just you get refreshed. It's like anything, you have a week off work, a holiday or something, you come back a little refreshed.”

And that brings us to Sunday.

On Sunday, the Capitals play the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are a team in playoff position in desperate need of points after seven of their last eight games.

When asked on Wednesday who he thought would start Sunday’s game, Trotz said, “We're in a result business and we need some results so we'll see who is looking the sharpest and gives us the best chance to win.”

Both Grubauer and Holtby were impressive in their starts over the Islanders. You can’t argue Holtby is suddenly the hotter hand after one win considering how well Grubauer has played of late, but if Holtby remaisn the team’s No. 1, shouldn’t he get the next start after a strong winning performance?


Trotz was asked after the game who would start on Sunday after Holtby’s win.

“They're both playing well so I can't even answer that right now to be honest with you,” he said. “I do know that we have a number of games this week and whatever way go, obviously I'm going to sit down with the coaches and whatever way we go, I think they're both going to get some time this week.”

“I think you have to take it game-by-game,” Trotz added. “Bottom line is that you've got to make a decision and go with it and if your decision is that goalie A is a little hotter or you've just got a gut feel then you go with it and you have to live with it good or bad.”

So for now, it sounds as if we will see a rotation in net as Trotz continues evaluating which netminder gives the team the best chance to win in the playoffs. It is a tough position for the Caps’ bench boss, but, if both goalies continue to perform, having to choose between a hot Grubauer and a resurgent Holtby is a good problem to have and much preferable to having to choose between backup Grubauer and slumping Holtby.

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