The Dallas Mavericks selected Justin Anderson with the 21st pick in last June's draft, making him the first guy Dallas had taken at their slotted draft position (i.e no trade-back or trade-away) since Maurice Ager in 2006. Of the nine players the Mavs drafted in the last decade who actually made it onto an NBA roster, only one has logged at least 5000 minutes: Jae Crowder, a 2nd round pick in 2012. The only other players from that group still in the league at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season were Shane Larkin (who may be playing on his fourth team in four years next season) and Anderson.
It's hard to overstate just how unusual that is, and if we've harped on the Mavs' regrettable draft record too much it's only to emphasize that building a competitive team without maximizing the return on your first round draft picks is tough. To a certain extent, Dallas has remained competitive despite themselves, but they've also failed to win a playoff series in the last five years, and it should go without saying that their young talent base does not inspire a tremendous amount of hope for the future. Dallas does not own their first round pick for 2016.
That dreary preamble aside, perhaps in Justin Anderson we are seeing the seeds of an organizational shift in philosophy. When injuries forced the 22-year-old into the starting lineup in late March, Anderson helped save the Mavs season. His length, athleticism, and hustle were critical in the six-game winning streak that catapulted Dallas back into the playoff picture when it looked like the Mavs were heading for a cliff, losing 10 of 12 games along with several key contributors. Though he only started one game in the playoffs (game 5, which ended the Mavs' season), Anderson made his presence felt in the playoffs, scoring in double-digits three times in five games and earning a spot on Kevin Pelton's top five rookies in the playoffs list (insider only).
You would have been hard pressed to imagine this sort of conclusion to Anderson's rookie campaign in mid-March, and not just because the team appeared to be circling the drain. After a standout summer league performance and a strong preseason, there was talk that Justin might be a rotation guy right away. With both Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons recovering from injuries, and the team's paucity of forward depth, a spot seemed there for the taking. Instead, Anderson received a DNP 27 times before March 14th, and prior to March 25th he had played 25 minutes or more just once all season. In fact, he played less than 25 minutes the entire month of December.
Coach Rick Carlisle is considered by many to be stingy in handing out minutes to young players, but by Carlisle's own admission, Anderson's late-season burn wasn't just out of desperation. It was earned.
While Anderson's outside shooting didn't immediately translate from his stellar junior year at Virginia (something I tried to prepare people for after the draft), his athletic tools are unquestionably NBA caliber, and showed up in the box score. Anderson was legitimately one of the team's best rebounders right away, which says a little about how terrible Dallas was in that area, but will remain a valuable asset for the club going forward. Anderson uses his long arms and superhuman hops to attack missed shots by snagging them at the highest point possible, which is pretty cool to watch. The only rookie wing with a better rebound rate was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and he ranked in the top 10 among small forwards league-wide there, too.
What helped him clean glass also helped him block shots, often in spectacular fashion. I don't know how many "chasedown" blocks Justin recorded but toward the end of the season it felt like he was getting one a night. Overall, he led all rookie wings in blocks per 48 minutes (an aside: Salah Mejri led all rookies period) in the regular season, and he added three more to his ledger in the playoffs.
Obviously, the defensive end of the court is where Justin Anderson is going to make his money. He has an NBA-ready body right now, and what makes his potential here really exciting is that he demonstrated such versatility that you could envision him being used to guard four of the five positions on the court, depending on the matchup. At 6'6 with a nearly 7-foot wingspan he can smother most wings, and with his bulk he could definitely play some small-ball power forward as well. It will take time to learn the nuances of NBA defense, but it's worth noting that Dallas allowed 5 points per 100 possessions less with him on the court.
Anderson will play next season at around $1.5 million, the second year of his rookie deal. This is why drafting guys is so useful: they are extremely cheap, and under team control for at least four years.
The competition isn't too strong, but Anderson is as encouraging a young player as Dallas has had probably since the ill-fated Roddy Beaubois. The fact that guy we affectionately call "Simba" got a chance to shine late in year one is huge, not only because it means he's that much further along in the developmental process, but also because it could change the equation in terms of how the Dallas front office approaches the upcoming offseason.
Dallas needs more wings; that much is certain. Ideally, someone who can shoot would be nice, if only to play the kind of role Richard Jefferson did while here. Does Dallas have to go find a starter caliber player here, though? Not necessarily.
Assuming the Mavs re-sign Chandler Parsons or replace him with a somewhat comparable small forward, that will give them three quality pieces at the 2/3. If Dallas targets a lower-rung veteran in the mold I describe above, rather than a more substantial (and more expensive) player, it should leave the team enough cap room to address what I believe are the real question marks on the roster: point guard (which has bodies, but injured, middling ones), and center (which after Zaza Pachulia's breakdown is something approximate to a gaping hole).
How much and how quickly Anderson progresses as an offensive player will ultimately decide how big a role he has in Dallas, but even as is I would submit that Justin is good enough to be 15-20 minute guy at minimum next year. Dallas got quality play from Al-Farouq Aminu and Jae Crowder in years past, and Anderson is sort of like the end result if you merged those two guys together. If Anderson blossoms in Dallas the way Crowder seems to have done in Boston, this will be easily the best draft success for Dallas in over a decade.