By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not long after his rookie season with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks ended, Justin Anderson returned to his native Virginia. In addition to seeing his family in Montross, on the state’s Northern Neck, he wanted to visit friends in Charlottesville and come back to the University of Virginia.
“Because this is like home,” Anderson said last week at John Paul Jones Arena. “I lived here for three years and kind of grew up on my own here. It was awesome to be able to get back to town, be able to see everybody and get back to work.”
The Mavs, whose head coach is former UVA guard Rick Carlisle, selected Anderson with the 21st overall pick in last year’s draft. A 6-6, 228-pound swingman, Anderson had a limited role early in the 2015-16 season, but his playing time increased dramatically late in the year.
In the Mavs’ final seven-regular games, he averaged 7.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 blocks. In the playoffs — Dallas lost in five games to Oklahoma City in the first round — he averaged 9.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists.
After a recent workout with former Virginia star J.R. Reynolds and current player Mamadi Diakite in the practice gym at JPJ, Anderson sat down for an interview with VirginiaSports.com. Some of the highlights:
JW: At this time last year, you were playing at the NBA Draft Combine and working out for teams. What advice have you given Malcolm Brogdon about the process?
JA: “It’s crazy that it’s been a full year now, just thinking about where I was at this time last year, asking myself, “Am I going hard enough? Am I doing all the right things to get drafted in the first round?’ It’s funny, because I talk to Malcolm now every other day at least, just to make sure he has all of his questions answered in a way that I can help … I’ve been trying to help him along the way, from just encouraging Malcolm to be himself, because who he is something that a lot of teams may need, [and] most of them want, and that’s a high-character guy who’s willing to put in the work, and he also knows how to will his team to win. So I’m very excited to follow him through that process. It’s awesome, because you start to look and you start to say, `OK, now [UVA is] putting out somebody into the NBA draft almost every year now.’ We’re onto something, and it’s awesome to be a part of it.”
JW: What was it like crossing paths with former UVA players Mike Scott and Joe Harris at NBA arenas?
JA: “The whole night before the game, you kind of have a certain level of comfort going into the game, because you know you’ll see a long-lost brother, somebody who’s distant but at the same time they’re still right there in your life. Catching up with those guys, it’s just awesome … to be a part of that, and I think here in another three or four years, I think the league is going to be a little bit more dense with UVA guys, coaches included, with Coach Carlisle. It’s just awesome to be able to see people up there you can just shout `Wahoowa!’ to, and they respond the right way.”
JW: Now that you’ve had some time to reflect, how would you assess your first season in the NBA?
JA: “I wanted to be able to understand what it took to be a rookie in this league, because they put such emphasis on it. There’s a reason why you’re a rookie, and that’s to learn the things on the court and off, to learn the NBA lifestyle. What I didn’t want to happen was for me to come in right away shooting 100 percent from 3-point, shooting 100 percent from the field for the entire season and not really get to understand and learn lessons of the ups and downs of the league.
“At this time last year, I couldn’t really speak on anything, because I didn’t know what it was like. All I could do was speak on what I thought it would be like. After going through a full season, you realize that the season comes in ebbs and flows. You’re playing, you’re not playing, you’re not dressing, you’re going to the D-League, you’re playing again on the main team, then you’re starting on the main team. It just goes up and down, and the only way that you can allow yourself to be successful or allow yourself to get the most out of yourself playing the game of basketball, or just compete at the highest level, is by trying to stay even-keeled and trying to just ride the wave and trying to be optimistic about everything, and just understand that you’re going through a learning process. And I think that’s what I did a really good job of this year, keeping that steady mindset of, `Even though I didn’t play well this game, it’s setting me up for something else. What did I learn from not doing well?’ Credit to the staff that we have in Dallas for allowing me to grow that way and start to use those maturity steps or processes to be better.”
JW: When you arrived in Dallas, was it intimidating at first to find yourself sharing a locker room with Dirk Nowitzki and other players you’d grown up watching on TV?
JA: “A little bit, after growing up watching Deron Williams cross [over defenders] and do what he did in Utah, growing up with Dirk as one of my favorite players when he played with Steve Nash and how incredible that tandem was. When I first walked into the locker room after I got drafted and I got out to Dallas, I found my locker was right beside Dirk’s, and I was like, `Whoa, this is sick.’ So I started looking in his locker, and I’m like, `I wonder what he’s got to offer.’ And then he walks in and he’s 7-foot and he’s long, and he’s just one of the best to ever do it, and you’re just like, `Wow, what’s up?’ And then he talks to you just like he’s known you for 20 years.
“That’s the coolest part, that these guys in the locker room, they’re great men outside of what they do for entertainment and their profession. They can have a conversation with you, and they’re very welcoming in Dallas. That was one of the main reasons why I was really excited to be a part of that team when I got drafted, because they were a high-class organization.”
JW: Some NBA players go their entire careers without making it to the playoffs. How special was it for you to get there as a rookie?
JA: “A guy I consider one of my big brothers, Charlie Villanueva, he was telling me about how [2014-15]” — the Dallas forward’s 10th season in league — “was actually his first year making the playoffs as well, and they had a big dinner for him, and I think he even may have teared up, just because he finally got to be a part of what everybody knows the NBA is all about. And to be able to go into that my first year was truly a blessing. I think we were in a position [late in the regular season] where we needed to win five out of seven or five out of six [to make the playoffs], and I knew we had some beat-up guys. Coach told me to stay ready, and I wanted to do everything I could to try to help our team get to the playoffs, because personally I want to be a player in the NBA who tries to go to the playoffs every year, and I’m off to a good start.”
JW: How much more intense is a playoff game than the average regular-season game?
JA: It’s hard to explain. It’s like going …. to play Duke for the ACC championship, in Cameron, Saturday night, prime-time game, that’s what the playoffs are like night in and night out. Non-stop noise, non-stop cheering, fans reacting to every whistle. You get goose bumps. You hit a big shot, and then the fans start going crazy for you. You start getting the chills, your eyes start watering, just because you’re in the moment, you’re in the zone. It’s a moment that I’m happy that I can finally speak on, just because it was so awesome … It’s a whole new experience that only a select few get the opportunity to really be a part of. I’m very fortunate. I’m very happy that I got to that level, but I think the next step for me now is, `How can I find a way, being young, to take on a lot of responsibility? How can I find a way to get past the first round now?’ ”
JW: Rick Carlisle is not known for handing out playing time to rookies. What was it like playing for him?
JA: “I did have to earn it, for sure, but I think he liked my competitive nature. I wanted to win. I wanted to be the best that I could be for the team. Every time he would put me in, whether it was 30 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, two seconds to go in the fourth quarter, a minute to go in the first quarter, I played hard. I played as hard as I could. I tried to do all the little things to help our team and not try to do anything to help myself shine. And I think that’s where I got the respect from first my teammates, which then trickled up to the coaching staff, to trust me in those situations, to trust me in the fourth quarter and know that I’m going to play the game of basketball the right way. And that’s nothing but what I’ve learned from here, at UVA, under Coach Bennett, and it’s been an easy transition in the sense of knowing the game, knowing time and score, knowing where the ball needs to go.”
JW: You and Coach Carlisle are both former Virginia players. Did that help you connect with him?
JA: “Going to UVA, it does help, I will say that. We get to talk about the games, we get to talk about players and how they’re doing. We followed a fair amount of [Virginia] games this season, so it’s been awesome to have somebody to talk to.”
JW: How much did playing in Tony Bennett‘s system at Virginia prepare you for the NBA? Was there much carryover?
JA: “It’s [about] making the right play: What is the right play in this situation? Is the right play catching and going? Is the right play catching and looking? Is the right play catching and shooting? Coach Carlisle always told me, `Keep it simple,’ nothing different than what Coach Bennett would always tell me. Keep it simple. Do the little things. Keep it simple. If you’re wide open, shoot it. Catch it and drive it. Get to the free-throw line.
“Coach Carlisle always says simplicity is key. And that’s what kind of helped me grow this year as an NBA player. But that’s also what helped me grow throughout college and UVA. Coach Bennett easily could have said, `Here’s the ball, get it off the rim and go push it every time and try to make something happen.’ Well, that wouldn’t have gotten me to where I am now, if I didn’t know to sprint the lane, if I didn’t know to run to the rim for a layup or a dunk.”
JW: How much of UVA’s season were you able to follow?
JA: “I watched it all. I was locked in. And if I wasn’t watching on TV, I was watching on my phone, with the ESPN Watch app. I was getting passwords from fans — I appreciate all you guys for that — to watch CBS or TBS or whatever it was. I was into it. One may say, `Weren’t you focused on your games [with Dallas]?’ Absolutely. When it came game time, I was locked into what we had to do, but outside of that, I would ask people for [UVA] scores, and I was on top of it. I wanted to know how we were doing the whole season.”
JW: Did you get to see the Elite Eight game against Syracuse?
JA: “We lost to Sacramento at the same exact time the Syracuse game was going on. So as soon as [the Mavs] lost, I went back into the locker room. After I showered, I got on the phone, and I was like, `What? We lost this game?’ Because someone said we were up 15 at half or something. So I didn’t look at any more tweets. I didn’t look at anything. I went home — back to our Sacramento hotel, we stayed overnight — and I watched the replay of it later that night, and that’s when I really got the heartbreak. I saw it for myself. It was a tough one to swallow, but it’s setting us up for something really good. I know it hurts right now, but Sweet Sixteen [in 2013-14), now Elite Eight, I think it’s setting us up for something really, really good soon.”
JW: When the 2015-16 season ended, UVA said good-bye to seniors Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Caid Kirven, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey. With four incoming freshmen, plus Austin Nichols and Mamadi Diakite, the team will have a much different look in 2016-17. What are your thoughts on the future of the UVA basketball?
JA: “It’s exciting to watch. It’s exciting to be a part of. If I could find a way to be here for every game and be at my own games, I’d be here sitting on the court and cheering as loud as I can. I think a lot of people were sad that A.G., Malcolm and Mike are leaving, and Evan and Caid, for the years that they’ve poured into this program. But they’re also excited about what’s to come, and what Coach Bennett does is phenomenal. So I can’t wait to see what he does again this year.”