I was one happy boy when the Mavericks drafted Justin Anderson with the 21st pick in the 2015 draft. After years of watching the Mavs haphazardly grabbing whatever fell to them, I thought we had finally landed someone with the potential to grow into a solid NBA player. I had followed Anderson's senior season at Virginia, where he shot 46 percent from three and played smothering defense, and I was confident that he would be the cure to the team’s drafting blues.
In his first season, Anderson became the archetypal rookie. He wore his heart on his sleeve, both on the court and on the bench, and he earned a reputation as a motormouth amongst the Mavs’ veterans. All that passion and energy made him a spark plug off the bench who electrified audiences with the kind of pure athleticism that only God can give.
He also made plenty of “rookie plays.” He showed flashes of his NBA potential, including some valiant minutes in a losing playoff series against Houston, but he finished the year averaging 26 percent from three and making a lot of quotidian mistakes on defense. He was a three-and-D wing, with no three and not a whole lot of D.
Following sports closely enough will make even the most rational among us believe in voodoo, and drafting has long been the Mavs’ curse. This team hands out first round picks like candy. We gave up a first (and a trade exception) for Lamar Odom. We left Giannis Antetokounmpo on the board and traded down for Shane Larkin and cap space. We dealt a first rounder (and Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright) for a six-month Rajon Rondo rental. Before Simba, if you wanted to find a Mavs pick that wasn’t traded on draft night you have to go all the way back to Nick Fazekas (who?) in 2007.
It’s bad, y’all. And it’s why I viewed every move that Justin made or didn’t make through the lens of Dallas’ ten year disregard for the draft. It wasn’t just that I liked his game and wanted him to succeed, I wanted him to break the curse and show the Mavs’ front office the value of the draft firsthand.
So although his first year was lackluster, I was confident that, with some solid offseason work, Justin was set for a break-out season. But even though the Mavs’ lengthy injury list early this season created plenty of opportunities to play, Anderson could never seem to stay on the floor. Dorian Finney-Smith, the undrafted rookie from Florida, soon swallowed his minutes, because even though he was less athletic and not a significantly better shooter, he had two things Anderson never could put together: dependable defense and maturity.
As the season wore on, Anderson couldn’t make much of the few chances he had. When he entered the game he was equally likely to lay a golden egg or a turd. Over the season, he scored 17 points per 36 minutes, but posted a minus-1.9 rating. He could slam home a put-back dunk and then let his man walk to rim on a back door-cut the next play. He scored 17 points in 14 minutes in a game against the Lakers, but flagrant fouled Kris Dunn seconds after taking the floor one night in Minnesota. He showed flashes of brilliances, but could never sustain them. I found this even more painful than a consistently poor performance.
This week my dream for Justin Anderson died. He won’t be the fortunate son who makes it from draft night to every night at the American Airlines Center, and while I have every confidence that he can be a solid NBA rotation player wherever he spends his career, his departure leaves those questions about the Mavs’ drafting process unanswered.