Larry Sanders had the look down long before the rulebook.
The long, spidery limbs. The height to tower over his peers. The irrepressible fire that spilled out when the competition started. Though his interests lay more in art than sports, Sanders fit the ideal of a basketball player even as a teenager. So despite scant experience, he was urged by Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High School coaches to join the basketball team after transferring there as a sophomore.
In his debut for the junior varsity team -- his first game of organized basketball -- Sanders scored on the wrong basket. He didn't realize the teams had changed sides after halftime.
"[Defense] was the only thing I could do," he says now. "Just run and try to block shots."
But what he lacked in production was always outweighed by potential. It's what led him to a rising Virginia Commonwealth University program that has become an NCAA tournament mainstay, and later to the Milwaukee Bucks, as the 15th overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft.
Now in his third professional season, things are finally adding up; through 52 games, the 6-11 center with the 7-7 wingspan has blocked 168 shots in just 26.4 minutes a game, more on average than any player in the league. But it's the looks he gets from other players these days that affirm he belongs.
"It's more when I see the opponents dribbling into the paint and dribble out," he says. "Or guards who are known for penetrating or scoring kind of thinking twice. Y'know, passing it out. I guess the outcome from the block. That's more of a feeling for me.
"Seeing that guys are aware and looking over their shoulders, pump-faking. All of those things that come after the block, I think I enjoy."
After his first two seasons in Milwaukee, Sanders' potential had turned on him. He was averaging 4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for his career in sparse minutes with a player efficiency rating south of 13. His impact on defense was clear -- the Bucks allowed 11.5 fewer points per 100 possessions in Sanders' sophomore season, the lockout-shortened 2011-12 -- but a foul rate that led the league by a large margin and a questionable shot selection limited his value and his playing time.
I think for a while Larry was trying to search out who he was as a player. I think he's finally discovered that.
”-- Bucks interim coach Jim Boylan
Over that same span, he would watch the Bucks add Ekpe Udoh and rookie John Henson -- young, long and lanky power forward/centers in the same mold as Sanders -- to their already crowded frontcourt. A forgettable second summer-league stint also left some "scratching their heads," according to interim coach Jim Boylan.
The high ceiling that once made Sanders so appealing was beginning to look more like an unreachable brass ring.
Then training camp happened.
"I had never seen anybody transform like that from the summertime, where he didn't have a great summer league. We were a little bit discouraged," says Boylan, who took over as head coach for Scott Skiles 32 games into this season. "But he came back ready to go and all of a sudden -- boom -- he was one of our best players in training camp. It was kind of surprising. But it was great to see because the things that he can do really affect the outcome of the game."
Improved physical conditioning made a big difference, Boylan says. As did Sanders' wife, son and mother moving to Milwaukee, which gave him the off-the-court comfort he yearned for. But there's been significant maturity in the 24-year-old's game, as well.
While his aggressiveness still leads to more fouls than all but two players in the league (Toronto's Amir Johnson and the L.A. Lakers' Dwight Howard), Sanders has largely eschewed his attempt at becoming a pick-and-pop big man and focused his offensive efforts toward the paint; after attempting slightly more shots from 16-23 feet than he did at the rim as a rookie, more than half of Sanders' 7.2 attempts per game now come at the rim, according to HoopData. His PER has also spiked to 18.71, 20th-best among centers.
As a result, the Bucks have more than doubled his minute allotment from last season and are now reaping the benefits of his league-leading 8.9 block percentage, a number that actually mirrors his 2011-12 rate. Ranked 17th in defensive efficiency last season, Milwaukee is now ninth in the NBA.
"I think for a while Larry was trying to search out who he was as a player," Boylan said. "I think he's finally discovered that."
Finding an edge has never been a problem for Sanders.
"I know I'm going to get angry," he says.
Harnessing it, though, hasn't always been as easy.
"I try to stay in my peaceful place," he says.
Outside a basketball setting, Sanders is soft-spoken and gentle. He's an artist who recently beamed over "some really cool" new pens he got. On his Twitter profile, which is attributed to the name "Nappy Gilmore," he links to a personal Facebook account rather than a fan page run by a media team. He even has a small part in an upcoming comedy film littered with Hollywood stars.
But his intensity can take a hold of him at times. In addition to his high foul rate, Sanders was hit with seven technical fouls last season, tied for 16th in the league despite his limited playing time. He was also ejected from two games, most memorably after running over Indiana's Danny Granger and then wildly chasing after him.
"People think I'm angry or mad or want to fight and stuff. That's not me," says Sanders, who despite his drop in fouls per 36 minutes (to a still-high 4.9) has seven technicals and two ejections again this season. "I just like to compete. I don't really like to be disrespected, because I don't really go out of my way to really disrespect anybody else. So when I get it sometimes I take it a little too personal."
Sanders says he tries to treat each game like a meditation, clearing his mind and focusing on the details of his tasks. But it's a fine line, one he can't walk away from. Like most shot-blocking big men, the aggressive nature that may hinder his game is what fuels it.
"You're not going to change that about him. That's who he is," said Tony Pujol, the University of Alabama assistant coach who led the recruiting of Sanders at VCU. "But if you take some of that emotion out of Larry, you're taking away his competitiveness.
"I saw that in high school, I saw that in college. He doesn't like to lose in anything. You could be playing hopscotch; he's going to want to beat your head in. That's just the way he is."
Sanders still sneaks up on opponents.
As the blocks continue to come -- oftentimes in clumps of five or six, or even 10, like in his triple-double performance against the Timberwolves to close out November -- teams are beginning to account for his presence on the floor, looking to avoid the length and quickness that make him appear extraterrestrial. But it's hard to account for a threat that, even when he's right in front of you, still comes out of nowhere.
Sanders doesn't overwhelm opponents with size and force. He almost sets a trap on shooters, allowing them to tee up their shot or go to work in the post, and then closes the gap quicker than they expect.
His victims tend to tell the story afterward: I didn't even see him coming.
But Sanders sure did.
"I always think I'm gonna get it before I get it," he says. "Even the ones I don't get, I feel like I could've gotten 'em or I should've gotten 'em."
His success this season is more than just the gaudy block totals. A recent study presented at last weekend's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference by Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss found Sanders to be one of the most effective defenders in the league in reducing opponents' efficiency when he's within 5 feet of the basket. Based on spatial analysis data, which they admit is still in its early stages of development, opponents shoot 38.4 percent against Sanders at close range, which ranks him second to only Roy Hibbert, by two-tenths of a point.
In Layman's: According to their findings, the Bucks center is one of the best interior defenders in the NBA.
"When I first started playing basketball, the first thing I did was play defense," Sanders says. "I've kind of always hung my hat on my defensive abilities. I didn't think they would take me to this point, though."