If the NBA Draft really does represent both a team’s current and future plans, consider the Mavs’ desires clear: Dallas wants to defend.
That much became evident as the club used the No. 21 pick in the draft on Justin Anderson, a junior from Virginia, which just so happens to be head coach Rick Carlisle’s alma mater. Anderson is the prototypical “3-and-D” player, one who can shoot the three and play effective perimeter defense — only in Anderson’s case, he plays terrific defense on the outside.
In many ways, Anderson meets every modern NBA demand. He’s got tremendous size, at 6′ 6″ and 227 pounds with a 6′ 11.75″ wingspan. He can play multiple positions on offense (either wing spot) and can defend the same positions. And there’s no question he can shoot the ball, as evidenced by his 45.2 percent mark at Virginia this season.
The biggest question mark with Anderson heading into the draft is his ability to create for himself and for others off the dribble, which ultimately led to his stock landing where it did. However, Carlisle said immediately after making the pick that Dallas already plans to work with the wing man on his ability off the bounce. And with Chandler Parsons and Dirk Nowitzki figuring to draw a significant portion of the offensive attention next season, there’s no immediate pressure on Anderson to perfect that skill right away.
That’s ultimately what matters most when it comes to measuring a young player’s potential to make an impact right away in the NBA. What can he already do very well, and what can his team do to to balance his strengths and weaknesses with the club’s own? Carlisle has built a system in Dallas that highlights what his players can do, not what they can’t. In that regard, it appears like Anderson is a natural fit with the Mavs, as his strengths fill needs all over the floor.
Anderson is known most for his defense, so it only makes sense to start there. And for a player with a wingspan extending nearly seven feet, where to begin makes even more sense. For those curious why wingspan and standing reach are such important measurables for incoming players — including (and especially) wing defenders — here’s a perfect example to demonstrate what type of value long-armed defenders bring.
At the time Anderson’s man attempts his shot, the new Maverick is standing about five feet away from him. Using his long arms and impressive vertical, which measured 43″ inches at maximum at the Combine, Anderson is still able to block the shot. Today’s star perimeter players — particularly guys like James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant — are becoming so adept at creating space with step-back, fadeaway, or pull-up jumpers, but Anderson’s reach is a perfect counter to that style of attack.
Additionally, when it comes to contesting spot-up shooters’ field goal attempts, a lengthy wingspan can go a long way. Virginia plays a style of team defense that stresses the importance of protecting the paint, essentially condensing the five-man unit as close to the basket as possible while also playing passing lanes and contesting shots when possible.
Anderson was the ace of the perimeter defense in that regard, as his quickness, leaping ability, and, most importantly, his arms allowed him to make even an open jump shot impossibly difficult: Spot-up shooters hit just 11-of-50 jump shots against him this season, per Synergy Sports. That’s good for an absurdly low 22 percent, which is an outrageously good number for a wing playing in the ACC, long considered college basketball’s best conference.
That was basically par for the course for Anderson at Virginia, though. Overall, opponents shot just 30-of-109 when he was the primary defender, per Synergy, which adds up to just a 27.5 percent clip from the field. They also turned it over 15.2 percent of the time, or roughly one out of every seven possessions. He allowed just 0.652 points per possession on defense this season, which ranked in the 92nd percentile nationally. Considering he was often defending the opponent’s best wing player, the stat becomes all the more impressive.
Anderson will be most effective right away as a perimeter shooter. Playing alongside Parsons and whoever runs the point as a spot-up shooter should be a fairly easy fit for the rookie, as his teammates can handle the bulk of the playmaking responsibilities while he finds open spots on the outside. There’s no doubt he can spot up, either, after hitting 45.2 percent of his threes as a junior.
As Parsons drives to the rim or Dirk Nowitzki draws yet another double-team, it’s comforting to know that Anderson could act as a reliable option on the receiving end of a kick-out pass. He shot exactly 50 percent on no-dribble spot-up jumpers, per Synergy, with a majority of those attempts coming from beyond the three-point line. The Mavericks finished 11th in the NBA in three-point percentage last season, so Anderson should only bolster the perimeter shooting.
He was especially efficient from the corner with Virginia, which is becoming an area of focus for offenses around the league. Per Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, Anderson excelled from the right corner, where he hit 52 percent of his attempts.
Floor geometry shifts so dramatically when the defense has to worry about a shooter in the corner. When, as an offense, you can stretch the defense so far horizontally by placing players in one or both corners, you’re in essence almost removing that man’s defender from the play. Whoever guards a spotted-up Anderson can’t, for example, help against a Parsons drive from the top of the key or help over to run a double-team at Nowitzki on the elbow. Anderson’s defender can only defend Anderson.
As a junior, he’s also had the chance to grow more comfortable with the game in terms of awareness, and that matters to a team like the Mavs, which runs a relatively sophisticated offensive system featuring all sorts of improvisation and flow. Anderson’s mind is most obviously evident on the defensive side of the ball, but the wing also has the awareness to float to an open spot on the floor and set his feet for a shot on the move.
It’s not easy to back-pedal to the corner, catch the ball, and set your feet in time to shoot. This play in particular is reminiscent of Ray Allen’s famous last-second game-tying shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. This isn’t to compare Anderson and Allen as shooters or players, but it does show Anderson’s body control and general floor awareness, something that many guys his age — and many who are even older — simply don’t have.
Anderson already has an NBA-ready body to go along with outstanding perimeter defensive abilities and a smooth jump shot. The tools are there for him to improve his game even more, and ultimately that will come down to how he works with Carlisle and the rest of the Mavs’ coaching staff. But if there’s one takeaway from this pick, it’s that Dallas is committing itself to defense, and drafting Anderson is the first step toward making that vision a reality.
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