Oct. 29, 2012

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The basketball left freshman guard Taylor Barnette’s hands. A moment later, his 3-pointer dropped through the net during a drill Friday at John Paul Jones Arena.

“T.B.!” screamed Justin Anderson, pumping his fists for emphasis.

Seated nearby in the men’s practice gym, sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon shook his head and laughed.

“He talks so much,” Brogdon said of Anderson, a freshman swingman from Westmoreland County in the state’s Northern Neck.

To call Anderson a force of nature might be an understatement. Watch him interact with other people — smiling, shaking hands, bumping fists, always making eye contact — and you might think you’re witnessing an aspiring politician. But there’s nothing phony about his exuberance.

“If you spend five minutes with Justin Anderson, you’ll be a UVa fan for the next 20 years,” associate head coach Ritchie McKay said during a recent radio appearance.

“He’s so engaging and such a strong, infectious personality.”

Anderson’s teammates may laugh at his antics and non-stop banter, but they appreciate him, too.

“It’s good to have somebody like him,” junior guard Joe Harris said. “Regardless of what the heck we’re doing, if we’re stretching, the guy’s yelling and saying stuff. But it’s good, because he brings a lot of energy, and I think the rest of the team just follows.”

He’s always been that way, Anderson said Friday, on the court and off. “I love people,” he said. “My faith teaches me that.”

This is Tony Bennett’s fourth season at UVa, and it’s safe to say he hasn’t coached another player as effusive, or as loud, as Anderson.

“He brings energy, and it’s contagious,” Bennett said. “As coaches, we’re always talking about talking [on the court]. Like sometimes in practice, I’ll tell the coaches, `Don’t say a word. We’re shutting her down. We’re going to become quiet, and let’s just hear [what the players say] in this drill or in this segment of practice.’

“It’s nice when you don’t have to draw it out of people.”

With Anderson, Bennett said with a smile, “I don’t know if there’s going to come a time when I’m going to say, `Hey, shut up.’ ” For now, though, “I love that he talks,” Bennett said.

“It pulls other guys [in], and they start talking in good ways, in competitive ways, and all that stuff. So I think that’s been a welcome addition. I encourage that, and that’s passion. Not everybody can be like that, but we try to get guys out of their comfort zone that way, especially for a freshman. Not a lot of them want to do that, so that’s a positive.”

Mike Curtis, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, likes to remind him that he’s still a rookie, Anderson said, “but I always tell him I’m just a freshman in the classroom. When you’re out on the court, there’s no classification. We’re all out here to play ball and get better. I just want to have that vocal presence. Even if I make mistakes, I still want to be that vocal presence on the court to help my teammates out.”

Anderson played his high school ball for one of the nation’s elite programs, at Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md., and his high-flying exploits became the stuff of legend. He can do more than dunk, though, and as a senior Anderson made The Washington Post’s All-Metro first team was named the Gatorade player of the year in Maryland.

After originally committing to Maryland, Anderson had a change of heart after Gary Williams announced his retirement plans. Anderson then committed to UVa, in May 2011, and signed his letter of intent about six months later.

“Coach Bennett didn’t sell me any dreams,” Anderson said this summer. “He didn’t tell me anything just because I wanted to hear it. He was very genuine from the beginning. It was based off of, `You come here and we can help you get better,’ and that’s what I want to be part of.”

With Brogdon and senior point guard Jontel Evans recovering from injuries, the left-handed Anderson has been working regularly with the first team in practice. He’s a chiseled 6-6, 226 pounds with a soft shooting touch.

“Very talented, and so coachable,” Bennett said. “That’s what I’ve loved about Justin up to this point. He’s maybe unfairly been tabbed as this [athletic freak], because he can put his head up by the rim, he’s got these powerful dunks and he looks the part. He’s just a highlight film. And he has some areas he has to develop, he’ll be the first to tell you that, but he has a big upside, and he’s coachable, and he’s got a voice in practice.”

Anderson has been humbled at times in practice, Bennett said, but he “has a good feel of who he is as a player, and who he needs to become, and that’s good. He doesn’t have any false notions, like `I’m coming in and I’m this guy or that guy.’ ”

Above all, Anderson wants to help the team, and he backs up his words with actions.

“You love that,” Bennett said. “I’m looking forward to watching him develop over the years, because I think there’s certainly a good one in there, and he shows glimpses of stuff that he’ll do that will certainly bring the fans to their feet with some of his athletic plays.

“I don’t think we’ve had since I’ve been at Virginia a guy that physical and athletic.”

His first semester of college is “flying by,” Anderson said, and UVa’s season-opener, Nov. 9 at George Mason, is fast approaching. He’s already traveled with the team to Europe, where Anderson averaged 8.2 points in five games in August. If you think he’s excited now, imagine how pumped No. 23 is going to be in Fairfax on the night of his official debut.

“I love this game,” Anderson said. “That’s all I can say. It takes me away from everything. Even when I was a child, talking to my brother and my parents, when things were going wrong, I would always want to go outside and shoot basketball, me and my brother or something. This game just takes me into a place I’ve never been, and I love it.”

That’s clear to anyone who’s seen Anderson on the court. Don’t expect him to mellow now that he’s in college.

“I say this in all humility, but sometimes I look at film and I say, `Man, that passion, I gotta bring that even more,’ ” Anderson said.

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