Maybe because he was the first promising young player the Mavs had drafted in some time, but after his playoff showing last year, no one had higher hopes for Justin Anderson than I did. I just knew he was going to be the 3-and-D wing of my dreams and even remember telling friends that he could vie for Sixth Man of the Year this season. Needless to say, it hasn’t turned out that way.
Anderson has had a tough year. He’s shooting 29 percent from three, and his persistent lapses on defense have dropped him behind Dorian Finney-Smith (and at times even Nicolas Brussino) in Carlisle’s pecking order. Prior to last Sunday’s game against the Lakers, he’d played just 23 total minutes in 2017, and it seemed like he might be relegated to garbage time for the rest of the season. Until this week, Anderson appeared to be yet another example of the Mavs’ bad luck and poor draft strategy.
But basketball is full of surprises.
Last Sunday, as the Mavs put a historic historic walloping on LA, Rick turned to the bench early and Simba seized his chance. He scored 19 points in 15 minutes while shooting 50 percent from three, helping the Mavs continue to pour points on Luke Walton’s young Lakers.
The video below shows my reaction:
Here was the promising young player we had hoped to see this season! Simba was exploding through the paint on drives, troubling talented scorers on defense, and shooting threes with confidence.
Since that game, a growing list of injuries has made more room for him in the rotation, and he’s building momentum. He went 11-3-2-3 against the Knicks and got to the free-throw line several times on strong, decisive drives. In the next game against the Thunder, he scored 17 in 24 minutes and shot 50 percent from three. Again.
I hate to see Mavs veterans go down with injuries, but if Anderson can use this window to regain Carlisle’s trust, it could be instrumental in his development. Dallas is in the latter half of a losing season (spoiler alert?), and the only consolation for fans of a losing team is watching young players progress. The past few games have proved that Anderson is still a promising talent, but he’s not going to grow watching the game from the bench.
There are two things Anderson can do to make sure he carves out consistent time.
Know thy shot
Simba is a better three-point shooter than his numbers suggest. This season he has launched way too many contested or out-of-rhythm threes. After watching a lot of his game footage, you begin to notice that a significant number of his misses come because his feet aren’t set, he hesitated before shooting, or because he jacked up a shot with a defender plastered to him.
His shot chart shows just what you’d expect — his percentages are better in the corners and straight away than they are on the wings. That’s because those shots are much more likely to be open, catch-and-shoot looks. Justin needs to get comfortable with those bread-and-butter threes, and then he can start expanding his spots.
One of the great ironies in sports is that elite college athletes sometimes have a harder time adapting to the professional game than their less talented counterparts because they’ve gotten used to out-muscling their opponents on a regular basis. In basketball this phenomenon is pronounced — just think of all the college studs that turned into NBA duds.
As I’ve watched Justin Anderson over the past two years I’ve noticed that while he definitely has the physical tools to be a great defender, he’s developed some bad habits that he needs to uproot. He misses rotations, loses his man, and flies out on over zealous challenges because he is used to his incredible speed and length bailing him out. That might have been enough at Virginia, but NBA players will punish those mistakes every time.
He needs to put in the time with film study and game planning and then approach his defensive assignments with more poise. Luckily, he has two veteran teammates in Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews who exemplify that approach, and hopefully they can pass it on to him. If he can shore up his defense and cut down on the brain farts, he’ll have more opportunities to let his athleticism shine through.
I still have hope that Simba can build on his recent success and iron out a solid rotation spot for next season, but I’m definitely not ready to call the 2018 Sixth Man race just yet.