Larry Sanders could stab the sky and hope for the best. He's got the reach with a 7-foot, 6-inch arm span. He can run fast for a big man, so getting back on defense is no problem.
Instead, Sanders studies the shooter, his angle and his release and positions himself at the best defending angle before he judges the timing of his jump. Nothing is random about his NBA-leading 3.12 blocks per game.
"I try to meet the ball at the backboard," Sanders said, "to anticipate where on the backboard it's going to land. I think it's kind of natural to me."
Trainer Dan Barto believes it is actually a gift. He has worked with Sanders at IMG Academy in Florida for two summers on everything from shooting to weights to nutrition, but when the data came back from the basketball program's visual tests, Barto saw something unique in Sanders.
"He is on the lead end of visual and anticipation skills. He's off the charts on all our vision testing," said Barto. "You can see his eyes racing in talking to him; you can just see the wheels spinning - and those guys are usually the best shot blockers, charge takers and creative scorers because they're not system learners. Everything has to be cognitively envisioned."
In a way, with his gift, shot blocking is almost an art form to Sanders, an emerging 6-foot-11 center-forward for the Milwaukee Bucks. It's another way of expressing his creativity, like his sketches, comic book drawings, or his book.
And yet even he never envisioned this kind of career - not with the start he had in the game.
Growing up in Fort Pierce, Fla., Sanders got his height from a 6-7 father and 6-4 grandfather, but he didn't participate in any youth sports. If he found himself on the playground basketball courts, it wasn't for dunking and dribbling. He was a skateboarder.
"I was terrible at basketball," said Sanders. "Like if I went to a court by my house or something? I was usually the first guy picked because I was so tall. And then my team would lose.
"And I would never be picked again."
When Sanders attended private school in ninth grade, there was no basketball team, but that wasn't the focus anyway.
"I was getting in trouble a lot. I would have authority issues with teachers," said Sanders. "I was always getting referred to the office. Private school really changed my life. It was really a big turning point for me. I got stronger in my faith. It kind of pushed me away from all that other stuff."
When he transferred to Port St. Lucie High School for the 10th grade, he introduced himself to coach Kareem Rodriguez. Sanders was 6-6. He had no basketball experience.
"He was the tallest kid on campus," said Rodriguez.
Sanders' natural ability was evident right away: He could really run, catch, had nice shooting form and was coordinated.
"He just didn't know the game, the rules, like three-second violation," said Rodriguez. "If I had a dollar for every time he was called for a lane violation his first year of playing basketball, I'd be very rich right now.
"But he was a natural at shot blocking and I wanted to get him in to the habit of just running the floor, so he could be the first person back on defense to try and block the shot."
Sanders got better and his team also enjoyed success, going to the state semifinals his junior year. But emotionally, Sanders still had an argumentative streak.
"We had some issues, him and I personally, and him and school and him during games," said Rodriguez. "He is a passionate guy. With him, there's a right and a wrong and when he feels wronged, he's going to tell you. He's a great person to have around because he has conviction."
By the time Sanders averaged almost 19 points and 13 rebounds his senior season and Port St. Lucie won a district championship, he had already committed to Virginia Commonwealth and had no interest in being courted by the bigger so-called basketball schools.
The big step
The VCU campus swirled with student demonstrations over the Middle East, scents of various ethnic foods sold on corners, artists peddling their creations - and then there was this basketball team with a collective goal.
"Those guys were all close, like brothers, and when they practiced, they fought like dogs, noses bleeding," said Sanders. "But once it was over they were back to being brothers. I loved that."
He wanted to study art but it conflicted with basketball, so he began concentrating on religious studies and eventually settled on a major in sociology.
Sanders made his biggest leap of improvement in basketball between his freshman and sophomore years when his average numbers jumped from 4.9 points and 5.2 rebounds to 11.3 points and 8.6 rebounds. Coach Anthony Grant "locked me in the gym that summer" and the two went to work. Even when Grant took a job at Alabama, Sanders was in luck. Shaka Smart took over the VCU program and kept grooming him.
Sanders was a Colonial Athletic Association two-time defensive player of the year. He decided to forgo his senior season and enter the NBA draft just six years after Rodriguez began teaching him the rules of the game.
The Bucks drafted Sanders in the first round in 2010, 15th overall, and his rookie year was promising even if the statistics were small: He averaged 4.3 points and 3 rebounds.
Then the lockout after his rookie year derailed his progress.
"I just didn't have pro habits. I didn't know how to be a pro without being in the gym, required to be here," said Sanders. "I didn't know exactly what I should do. I took a lot of steps back and it showed my second year. I wasn't as sharp. I had some issues in training camp with my body. I was in shape, I was running every day, but my muscles weren't ready to take the impact. That just affected my year."
The dip looked like this: 52 games, starting none, with an average of 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds. His free throw shooting (47.4%) was only slightly better than his field goal accuracy (45.7%). The one good number? Seventy-six blocked shots.
Sanders' jump this year has been a bright spot for an improved 23-19 Bucks team that wasn't awarded any all-stars. After embracing a role off the bench and then accepting that he needed to start, his playing time and all his other statistics are up: 8.5 points, 8.5 rebounds.
There are two reasons for this: Sanders' life settled down, so he could focus on basketball. He got married this off-season and lives with his wife, 2-year-old son and his mom in a suburb of Milwaukee.
He also went to Bradenton, Fla., last summer again to train at IMG for six weeks, six days a week. Days were filled with workouts. Free time at night was a head-clearing run - his hobby anytime - on the beaches of Florida's west coast.
"It was kind of my sanctuary," said Sanders. "I'm thankful for last summer. I had a chance to be settled and knew when we were going to come back, I was really able to focus on just getting better - instead of, where am I going to live? Or am I going overseas? Or what am I going to do with my family?"
At IMG, Sanders worked carefully on form and technique that he maybe couldn't during the season. He also understood that he had to speak up if he needed the extra work during the season.
"He needs repetition where he can kind of work himself through mistakes," said Barto. "Coaches don't always have the most patience with rookies. I think it was important that he finally said: I'm still a young player."
Here's an example:
On his shots, Sanders would jump, turn his hips hard left and then he would drop his left hand fast, which would put a negative force on the ball and lead to very bad misses.
Barto, the Pro Development Coordinator at IMG Academy, worked with Sanders on correcting this - in stages. He started with 30 shots only meant to keep his hips square and landing straight.
"We didn't even care if the ball hit the rim," said Barto. "It was, can you control your hips."
The next 30 shots were about keeping the left arm and shoulder up two seconds longer than before.
"He was actually counting out loud how long he was holding up that left hand in the air," said Barto. "You know a lot of times in professional organizations, they don't have the time to really do that. They have to move on to the next game."
After a while, Sanders went from being unaware of these glitches in his form to self-correcting them.
"I didn't have to keep saying, 'Keep you hips straight,' " said Barto.
What Sanders is working on now is keeping his cool. He'll draw a technical pretty quickly. He served suspensions in the past, two last April and one in October, after he got in to a heated confrontation with an unidentified teammate. Sanders felt his value to the team was being challenged, or disrespected, and he felt the need to stand up for himself.
"It shouldn't have gotten where it did - but it helps now," said the 24-year-old Sanders. "I see it a lot, teammates have disagreements. When those things are handled in the beginning of the season? Usually things are good. But when they are handed at the end of the season, things are lingering and fester. This was something that had to be kind of handled.
"I consider myself as a leader in a lot of ways. And at that point I had to kind of establish my respect. It was only so that my word could kind of be heard a little bit more. At that point I was kind of cast down a little bit because I was young, And so that was what that disagreement was about. It made us better teammates. Me and that guy are closer now and I feel like the team is closer now."
Sanders calls his passionate personality his "biggest strength and biggest weakness." He does try to chill out. That's why he doesn't listen to crazy music in pregame to get himself jacked up.
"It's gospel music," Sanders said with a laugh, "because I have to find my peaceful place."
Art is another place Sanders finds peace.
Sanders unwinds when he's drawing portraits or when he's writing. He's started a fiction novel and sometimes wakes in the middle of the night to write down the next scene. He appears in the just-released movie, "Movie 43," in which he has a few lines as a 1970s-era basketball player (his tattoos were spray-painted over).
He also may be the only 6-11 man on the planet who feels comfortable on a skateboard. He custom-designs them, hand-picking wheels, screws and the truck, and then artfully arranging the grip tape across the plank in his own design.
"I learned how to skate before I learned how to play basketball," said Sanders. "I can hang them up and use it like canvas, like art.
"I love my job, the team, fighting for something, competing against another team. I love to play but it doesn't consume me. Some people fall in love with the basketball, and what they can do with it - but it's a team sport. I love the team aspect of it.
"I like to stay creative. Creativity is the only thing you own. You don't really own anything in this world but what you create. And our imagination is just endless."