One thing that’s happened in the NBA within the last decade is we’re seeing more and more wing players facilitating offensively. Just this season, for example, players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant (when healthy), and the Mavs’ own Chandler Parsons at times handled a bulk of the playmaking responsibilities for their respective teams, and the list doesn’t come close to stopping there. Nowadays, every team has multiple players who can attack the basket and make things happen on the outside. No longer is running offense exclusively the point guard’s job.
That means wing defenders must be very multi-talented. Not only must defenders beat their men to their spots on the floor, fighting through screens and misdirection in the process, but also must be able to contest dribble-drives and shots at the rim. If you’re guarding anything between a point guard and a small forward — and even at times a power forward — you’d better be quick with your feet and even quicker with your hands.
Due to this offensive versatility revolution, which some are calling “positionless basketball,” new stats have become more important when measuring a wing defender’s effectiveness. Two, in particular, are steal percentage and block percentage. They essentially represent what you’d think they would: Steal percentage measures the percentage of opponent possessions ending in a steal by one particular player while he’s on the floor, while block percentage measures the volume of two-point field goal attempts blocked by one particular player when on the floor. By comparing these stats from player to player, we’re able to see fairly easily which defenders can guard effectively both on and off the ball. And, in today’s in NBA, both are equally important.
This is where new Maverick Justin Anderson comes in. Anderson was a defensive ace at Virginia, finishing in the top-four in individual defensive rating in all three of his collegiate campaigns. He began his career with absurd block percentage numbers, stuffing 6.0 percent of opponents’ field goal attempts as a freshman. However, as his career went on, he blocked a lower rate of attempts and stole more. In effect, he became a more well-rounded defender, which is what you want to see as a coach. By his junior season, Anderson finished with a 2.5 BLK% and 1.6 STL%, impressive numbers given the quality of competition he faced on a nightly basis.
But how does that compare to current NBA players? Let’s take a look. Below is a chart which shows the block and steal percentages of every NBA guard and wing — including point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards up to 6′ 9″ tall — who played at least 20 minutes per game for 41 games in the 2014-15 season. More or less, these are the qualified perimeter defenders in the league. In addition to those 157 players, included in the graph are Anderson and fellow rookie Stanley Johnson from Arizona, the first American wing selected in the NBA Draft and considered by some to be perhaps the best perimeter defender in this year’s rookie crop. Here’s how Anderson stacks up. (All numbers from Basketball-Reference.com.)
Anderson compares favorably to longtime Spurs shooting guard Danny Green, considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Green and Anderson actually compare favorably in terms of physicality; Anderson is 6′ 6″, 230 with a 7′ wingspan, while Green stands 6′ 6″ and 215 pounds with a 6′ 10″ wingspan. (The only other players with a higher block percentage than Anderson’s in 2014-15 were super-athletes KJ McDaniels and Jerami Grant.) Johnson, meanwhile, sits closer on the graph to Tony Allen and Kawhi Leonard, themselves two of the better lockdown guys in the NBA. What really matters, though, is that Anderson sits on one extreme of the graph, which is a very positive thing.
How could this help the Mavs? Last season, Dallas ranked tied for 18th in the NBA in blocked shots per game and tied for ninth in steals per game. As a whole, the Mavericks’ offense was at its best after a turnover, and that’s ultimately how Dallas preferred ending possessions, finishing tied for third in the NBA in opponent turnover percentage per NBA.com. Anderson’s extreme athleticism should help increase the number of Mavs blocked shots per game, as his big body and quickness will help him stay in front of smaller players and his explosiveness (he has a 43″ vertical leap) will help him reject attempts by bigger players.
The addition of Anderson does two things for the Mavericks. First, he’s a player that can defend opponents at multiple positions, making the jobs of everyone else on the team much easier. When you have a defender who can go head-to-head with terrific talent one-on-one, it allows his teammates to worry less about the opponent’s star player and more about their own assignment. On top of that, he has the ability to block shots at a tremendous rate for a player at his position, and that’s a skill which should translate to the NBA. Explosiveness isn’t a skill that fades when a player is 21 years old.
Defense isn’t the glamorous half of basketball, but it’s the most important. No team outside the top-10 in defensive rating has won the NBA title since the 2000-01 Lakers. And one way to improve on the defensive end is to force more turnovers and block more shots. Anderson can immediately help in those two areas.