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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Scott Turner won the Redskins offensive coordinator job over Kevin O'Connell, per source

Scott Turner won the Redskins offensive coordinator job over Kevin O'Connell, per source

There has been plenty of speculation as to why new Redskins head coach Ron Rivera decided to hire Scott Turner as offensive coordinator, and now a source tells NBC Sports Washington the answer is simple. 

Turner won the job competition. 

Many expected 2019 Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell to maintain his position when the team hired Rivera as their new head coach earlier this month. That didn't happen. 

As Rivera moved quickly to assemble his coaching staff, the biggest question seemed to be running the offense and working with second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Rivera interviewed O'Connell and Turner for the job, and asked to interview former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur. 

Shurmur declined the interview, and at that point, a source explained that Rivera then made his decision to go with Turner over O'Connell. 

So why Turner? 

Both candidates got their first experience calling plays last year after an in-season firing to the head coach. The results weren't great for either coach, but Turner's game plans involved more play action passing than O'Connell. 

Turner's resume working with Cam Newton and Teddy Bridgewater mattered, as did the plan Turner presented for working with Haskins. 

It's important to note that Rivera had years of experience working with Turner, as well as his father Norv Turner. That mattered too, and one source explained Rivera "believed" in Turner. 

While O'Connell landed in a strong spot as offensive coordinator for the Rams, he won't be calling plays. Coaches don't like giving up control, particularly offensive coaches giving up play calling. For O'Connell, maybe that will change in LA, but it will take time. 

Some Redskins fans have a bad habit of assuming the worst. That maybe Turner got the job because O'Connell passed on it. That's not the case, per multiple sources.

Ron Rivera wanted his guy, and that's why Turner got the job. 

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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.