"He still talks too much."
Wesley Matthews chuckled while describing Justin Anderson, but his timing couldn't have been better. "Hurry up, man," Anderson called out from across the gym just seconds later, interrupting Matthews' exit interview with the media, oblivious to the irony.
"See what I'm saying?" Matthews deadpanned, and Anderson grinned, still not realizing he had caused the laughter.
Anderson loves to talk. In the locker room, at a practice, during a game, it's entirely too easy to pick out the rookie's distinctive voice, which is almost always energetic, usually fast-paced and often paired with a smile. It's one of the most endearing qualities of the 22-year-old headed into his sophomore season. But it also gets him in trouble with the veterans.
"I've gotten quiet!" Anderson protested after a win against the Rockets in early April. "They do this thing where if I keep talking, they beat me up, they wrestle me, like five against one. They get me on the ground and I just have to surrender, so I learned my lesson real quick."
Anderson is far too likeable -- and smart -- to be completely without allies when waging these locker room wars. Matthews jokingly describes Anderson as part of the Latin crew, befriending J.J. Barea and Charlie Villanueva for protection when Matthews recruits Deron Williams and his MMA takedowns.
"I'm not going to back down," Anderson said. "I'm going to challenge those guys."
That's Anderson's attitude when tested, and it's exactly the approach he brings onto the basketball court.
* * *
More than a decade has passed since the Mavericks drafted a player who they would sign to a second contract. Rodrigue Beaubois didn't pan out, Maurice Ager and Jared Cunningham never had a chance, and then there was Jae Crowder and arguably Shane Larkin, both traded away too quickly.
This is Dallas' draft philosophy, valuing picks as trade assets more than young talent collection. Some credit can also be given to the team's continued success, which has kept their draft picks low in value, but Dallas has still had notable misses. Either way, successful Mavericks draft picks are few and far between.
Justin Anderson didn't know how unproductive the draft had been for Dallas when I asked him, but to him, it's not something that adds any more pressure to succeed. Three years at Virginia coached by Tony Bennett helped 22-year-old Anderson develop into a polished prospect last summer, one the Mavericks grabbed with the No. 21 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. With Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews returning from serious injuries, Anderson was expected to play an important role immediately.
Instead, Anderson's role was minimal as he slowly worked to gain Rick Carlisle's confidence. He'd occasionally play meaningful minutes when the Mavericks needed energy, but it wasn't until Chandler Parsons' season-ending knee surgery that Anderson received an extended chance. Anderson started seven games down the stretch, helping push Dallas towards a playoff berth and coming up with the game-saving block on Kevin Durant in Game 2 of the first round, which stood as the Mavericks' only playoff win that postseason.
"He always had a knack for the big play," Bennett told me earlier this week. "No matter how he's playing, he finds a way, and that as a player is something special."
Mavericks fans were vocal in their common belief that Anderson could have turned into an everyday impact player sooner with more playing time. In his first two months, Anderson was often overwhelmed, but January and February saw a more confident Anderson who would usually make an impact in his limited chances. To Anderson, this was just part of his growth.
"They prepared me the right way. I peaked at the right time this year for our team to try to help us make a push," Anderson said. "They did play me early, but I showed spurts at times where I wasn't ready yet, and consistency. It was totally fair how I was treated this year."
That might just be Anderson walking the company line, of course -- rookies who criticize coaches for playing time usually don't usualy get far. But there's a relentless positivity around Anderson that makes it easy to believe he's telling you exactly how he feels. At no point does it feel like his extreme confidence turns into arrogance.
"He's a very thankful young man," Bennett said. "He's got a genuine humility that he does not take for granted."
Dirk Nowitzki, whose locker Anderson was placed next to, praised him too.
"He always kept his spirit, he always kept working, he was always the first down here with our development crew," Nowitzki said.
This is the Anderson that Bennett has known from the moment he began recruiting him at Virginia.
"He's got this warm, gregarious personality, he's got charisma," Bennett told me. "He just loves to talk and keeps going. You know, sometimes he talks to much -- ‘that's enough, Justin, shut it down,' and he will -- but he's just so, he loves life, he loves experiences, you can just see that about him."
Anderson still credits so much of his success to Bennett, a college coach turned father figure.
"He installed pillars in me that I try to reflect back to every moment of the day," Anderson said. "He's the best."
Tell him to shut up, and Anderson isn't offended by it. Sit him down in a game, and Anderson's reaction is to work harder, not complain. Even when he occasionally faced the wrath of the steely-eyed Rick Carlisle, who is more of an in-game yeller than Bennett, Anderson knew it was all love.
"He cares," Anderson said. "And he knows I take coaching well."
* * *
Holger Geschwindner had arrived during the afternoon before a March game last season, and Nowitzki planned to shoot with his longtime German mentor and coach on the following off day. Anderson stuck around in the locker room afterwards longer than usual, waiting for Nowitzki to finish media obligations so he could ask him to come watch.
"It's just like any other workout," Nowitzki protested, but Anderson would not be denied.
Anderson calls Nowitzki "6," in reference to his spot on the all-time scoring list, and visibly soaked up as much as he could last season from the best player in Mavericks history. When Nowitzki and Holger spent time after practice a few days later with their unorthodox drills, it was Anderson who found himself a seat on the baseline, watching silently.
"Hearing the stories before, I was a fan of Dirk before I got here to play," Anderson told me. "I wanted to see what he was all about, and yeah, for sure, I pick his mind every chance I get."
There's an honest passion for basketball in the 22-year-old from Virginia. After forgetting plays early in the season, Anderson learned them all, at every position, just in case. Whenever Carlisle calls for him to sub in, he sprints to the scorer's table. It's something carried with him since high school, where he learned it from his legendary coach Stu Vetter. "Don't run so fast, I don't want you to get hurt," Raymond Felton had to tell Anderson once about that habit, but Anderson shrugged it off.
"(You have to) get fired up, and show coach that you're ready to play regardless," Anderson said.
* * *
Justin Anderson believes his ceiling is as high as he wants it to be. Maybe that's not true, but it's the mindset you want from a rookie. There's a cliché around sports that the summer after a player's rookie season is the most important in their development, but Anderson sees it differently.
"I'm not very results-driven," Anderson said. "I'm more of a process guy. I'm more of a, ‘Did I do my part and prepare?' Whether that's for a season or a game, I wanna prepare myself as best I can and let the results be the results. Of course in regards to this being a big summer for me, I understand where everyone's coming from. But I've already been working hard."
Rick Carlisle talks a lot about "the right pace." The Mavericks have high hopes for Anderson, viewing him as a small forward who can play shooting guard and power forward. This summer, Anderson is working on developing his playmaking and using more screens, but it's a gradual process.
"Throw too much on a young player at once and there's gonna be a wall he hits, so we're conscious of that," Carlisle acknowledged.
There's already a lot Anderson can do on the court, courtesy of his season-long development as a rookie last year and the talent that got him drafted in the first place. He's much more comfortable at finding his shots in the offense, something that Anderson admitted took time. Although he only shot 41 percent last year, he's convinced that number will rebound. Anderson's defensive highlights dominated the Mavericks' top-10 plays last season, and the Mavericks have been lacking an explosive athlete like him on the wings for some time now.
More than anything, Anderson has self-awareness. He knows he talks a lot, and he understands how that comes off to both players and fans. He's comfortable with the media, asking them to recommend late night dinner spots when his girlfriend was in town after a game, but also seeing through a good-natured ploy used by one local reporter trying to sniff out the starting lineups before they were officially announced. Bennett described one of his lasting memories of Anderson as how great he was around his kids.
"You look at yourself in the mirror and you say, you're a small town kid from Montrose, Virginia," Anderson said. "You gotta just be thankful for every opportunity that you have to be suited up."
Anderson's exit interview with the assembled media came right after Matthews', and halfway through, Matthews returned the favor, yelling out that Anderson wasn't done being a rookie this season, that he has 82 more games. Anderson, of course, reacted with mock disbelief while shaking his head.
"That's crazy. You hear that?"