Justin Anderson is an athletic demon, a hard-worker, a man who says all the right things, and the man who holds the key to whether the Dallas Mavericks can thrive in Dirk’s twilight and beyond. Wes Matthews can return to form, Chandler Parsons can be a leader but can also leave, and Rick Carlisle can patch together a center until Dallas gets a solution. In today’s NBA though, Wes Matthews as the only true two-way wing just won’t ever be enough. Justin Anderson will need to be a consistent threat for 30 minutes a game or more on both ends of the floor, every night.
In 2011-12, Jimmy Butler was drafted late in the first round by a perennial playoff contender in the Chicago Bulls, with a coach who was reticent to play young players high minutes and needed veteran understanding to run his playbook. Butler played in a little over half of all Bulls games, never started, shot just over 40% from the field, scored inefficiently, didn’t have many steals, didn’t pass the ball well, and didn’t shoot threes. Justin Anderson is a small step ahead of where Butler was – he started 9 games, played in 13 more overall, shot threes better (although still not at a great percentage), shot almost exactly as well from the field, and played a little under twice as many minutes with nearly identical defensive rate stats—and the same type of coach. In his second season, Butler improved dramatically as the second or third guy off the bench, started increasing his steals rate, scoring more points more efficiently, shot 38% from three, and became heralded as a lock down wing defender.
Justin Anderson has all the tools to do the same things. He’s strong and fast and compares favorably to Butler. Look at their combine measurements to see the tale; at 6’6” tall, Butler has a 6’7.5” wingspan and a 39-inch max vertical. Anderson, on the other hand, was only 6’5”, has a 6’11.75” wingspan (read: seven feet), and maxes out at a 43 inch vertical. Want to know something people overlook about basketball? You catch, shoot, steal, defend, block, rebound, and just generally play the game with your hands. Where are your hands? At the end of your arms. Know what that means? Your height is a lot less important than your height plus your wingspan. Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have shown us that the last two years in their Defensive Player of the Year battles.
All of this is to prove one point: Anderson has POTENTIAL. Yuuuuge potential, one candidate might say.
How does he unlock that potential?
Well, the answer lies in a few key areas: improved shooting, improved understanding of the game, and better defensive fundamentals to take advantage of his athletic advantages.
First up, let’s take a look at his shooting. To be a superstar wing scorer, you basically have to shoot the three well in today’s NBA (looking at you, DeMar). In the first clip, we see bad form as Anderson catches, doesn’t stop his momentum, and turns a catch and shoot easy three into a moving target carnival game. If he can consistently shoot with the form he displays in the second clip, his accuracy will shoot upwards.
Anderson needs to clean up his choice of lanes as a wing man in transition as well. Watch as he runs right next to DeAndre Jordan, the only rim protector on the floor, instead of floating along the three point line for what could have been a wide open look. If Anderson recognizes the floor balance, Dallas could have three points here instead of zero.
He can also improve as the lead ballhandler in transition. Transition is where Anderson shines brightest, running and outjumping guys for dunks and easy points. But, sometimes, he needs to know when to pull up or slow down. Compare and contrast Anderson as he runs into a 1 on 2 and can’t finish with the measured attack of Parsons, who gets an easy look in the second clip.
If Anderson is truly ready to progress, then he’ll need to become a better pick and roll ballhandler too, just like Butler has since coming into the league. His biggest issue is not ability on these plays, but recognition. In these next two clips, we see first when Anderson has to learn that a pullup is the right play—instead he forces the issue with a drive against a set big man—like it is when he next sees that same defense against the Clippers and executes correctly.
He’s also got to recognize mismatches. This next play is a huge missed opportunity for a Dallas team that has thrived on the Dirk-little guy matchup a switched pick and roll generates for the last 15 years. When the Mavericks get this switch, everyone knows to pull out and feed the big German for an easy bucket. Anderson has to learn to see this, rather than wildly attacking a clogged lane.
Now let’s focus on his defense. How do you harness all that power and athleticism to become a lockdown defender? You have to start with great fundamentals. That means staying in your stance, arms out wide, mirroring your opponent every step of the way and keeping him in front of you at all times. It means staying focused on threatening players so that they don’t ever see daylight, and when they catch the ball you’re there to greet them with a high-hand closeout. Watch now as two different Andersons appear against the Warriors. In the first clip, he loses focus and leaves Klay Thompson open. Predictably, the Warriors get three points right away. In the second clip, Anderson’s locked in. He stays with Klay through some contact, is on him at the catch, and blocks his three point attempt. That’s the kind of menace Anderson could become for a decade.
On-ball defense is the other key component for a wing. Anderson could learn from his teammate, Wes Matthews, and become a more sound on-ball defender. Too often, Anderson is jittery and jumpy, leaving his feet and using too much energy just to be left with negative results. In the NBA, every little mistake or opening will be punished ruthlessly. Lance Stephenson catches Anderson hopping instead of sliding and takes an easy pullup as soon as both of Anderson’s feet leave the ground and he can no longer change direction. Then, Omri Casspi makes him look like a cat chasing a laser pointer with repeated pump fakes before drilling a three.
Wes Matthews, on the other hand, keeps his feet against even the best in the NBA. He slides with guys, stays in front, and then uses quick hands to poke at the ball, just as he does to a premier scorer in Harden here.
That’s not all, but it’s a good rundown of the key improvements that will take Anderson from potential wing stud to all-star consideration. With his dedication and tools, it’s no stretch to think he can do exactly what Jimmy Butler did and explode onto the scene when his sophomore season kicks off this fall. Watch his best possession of the year, as he does all the little things right and the Mavericks come away with an easy bucket.
He brings the ball up with confidence. He makes a slick pocket pass to a rolling Powell. He gets back to spacing the floor. The ball swings around, and Anderson catches on balance, rises straight up, and fires a three under control. He holds the follow through and knocks it down. That’s an NBA starter. That’s the type of play that keeps you in the league for a long time. Add in the defense and transition, and Anderson could have more highlights like the levitating block he had in Charlotte this year.
At the very least, the Mavericks have the potential for a very bright future on the wing.