Analysis: Win-win for Justin Anderson, UVA basketball?

justin dunkAt first glance, the news that Justin Anderson is foregoing his senior season to declare for the 2015 NBA Draft is bad news for UVA’s 2016 national-title hopes.

You can’t just lose an All-America candidate, in addition to the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in senior Darion Atkins, and expect to pick up where things left off.

Right?

It’s not nearly as dire as it looks right now.

Anderson averaged 12.2 points per game, and before he went down with the broken pinky in the Feb. 7 Virginia win over Louisville had been the team’s leading scorer. Athletic as anybody we’ve ever seen in a UVA uniform, with the ability to knock down the open three, throw down an alley-oop or tip dunk, protect the perimeter and protect the rim, and a super-nice kid, Anderson is the type of kid you not only want as one of the faces of your program, but you want your kids to grow up emulating.

OK, so we’ve established that Justin Anderson is a great athletic, a superior athletic talent, and had a very productive 2014-2015 season.

Now to the downside.

In his last 10 games, he averaged 7.9 points per game on 32.4 percent shooting from the field and 23.5 percent shooting from three-point range.

Anderson shot 37.4 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent from three in ACC play in 2014-2015, after shooting 53.8 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from three in nonconference play in November and December.

He shot 50 percent or better from the floor just four times after Jan. 1, a span of 14 games, and two of those were low-volume shooting games (3-of-6 at Notre Dame on Jan. 10, 4-of-6 in the NCAA Tournament win over Belmont on March 20).

It has been written that UVA was not the same after Anderson went down in the first half of the Feb. 7 win over Louisville, but in truth you could say the Cavs’ issues dated back maybe as far back as three weeks prior, in the 66-51 win at Boston College that saw Virginia have to rally from a five-point second-half deficit.

In that game, Anderson had eight points in 34 minutes, all from the foul line, as he missed all eight of his field-goal attempts, and all four of his three-point attempts.

That was the start of a six-game stretch for Anderson in which he shot 32.7 percent from the field, 28 percent from three-point range and averaged 9.3 points per game.

Then came the injury in the Louisville win, in a game in which Anderson had shot 1-of-9 from the field, the make on an alley-oop dunk, and a closing stretch that saw Anderson score 5.8 points per game in what turned out to be his final four games in a Virginia uniform, shooting 31.6 percent from the field and a collective 1-of-9 from three.

These numbers might explain what seemed counterintuitive back when UVA went 7-1 in Anderson’s absence, the only loss coming on a last-second jumper at Louisville in the regular-season finale, with unheralded Evan Nolte taking Anderson’s spot in the lineup.

Nolte only averaged 4.5 points per game in Anderson’s absence, but the 6’8” junior led the team in plus-minus in that stretch by doing the little things, playing good defense, moving the ball, and, maybe surprisingly, providing if not more on offense than Anderson had been bringing, at least more efficient offense, shooting 33.3 percent from the field (12-of-36) and 34.5 percent from three-point range (10-of-29).

So comparing Anderson’s last 10 games to that eight-game stretch in which Nolte replaced Anderson in the starting lineup, you 3.4 points per game more from Anderson (7.9 to 4.5) on worse shooting from the field (32.4 to 33.3) and worse shooting from three (23.5 to 34.5) with Anderson eating up quite a few more offensive possessions (7.1 field-goal attempts per game for Anderson, to 4.5 for Nolte).

Which isn’t saying that Nolte is a better player, more dangerous player, a player like Anderson that you have to game-plan against, because he’s not. Anderson is a projected late first-round NBA Draft pick for a reason: he’s an athletic wunderkind with gobs of potential.

Unfortunately for UVA, Anderson only showed that potential for a half-season in his three years on Grounds, the second half to his junior season marred by injuries and ineffective play around those injuries.

The silver lining is that Virginia was able to go on a long winning streak without Anderson in the lineup, with guys like Nolte and freshmen Marial Shayok and Devon Hall getting more minutes, and important minutes, in his absence.

The whole 2014-2015 season is a silver lining unto itself, when you think about it. UVA was a preseason national Top 10, but the ACC writers put the Cavs fourth in the conference race in the preseason on account of the losses to graduation of Joe Harris, the team’s second-leading scorer in 2013-2014, and Akil Mitchell, the 2014 ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Going into 2015-2016 without its second-leading scorer and the 2015 ACC Defensive Player of the Year shouldn’t scare UVA fans. It will dampen the preseason #1 talk that had soothed the hurt feelings over the early NCAA Tournament exit, but the focus turns to what Virginia has returning, which is still an awful lot.

The returnees scored 73.6 percent of UVA’s points and played 76.7 percent of the Cavs’ minutes in 2014-2015. As Anderson stepped up in the absence of Harris (now in the NBA) from a bench role in 2013-2014 to key contributor in 2014-2015, the opportunity will be there for Nolte, Shayok and Hall to step up to try to fill Anderson’s role.

As Atkins stepped up from a reserve role in 2013-2014 in the absence of Gill to become a key guy in 2014-2015, the opportunity is there for Mike Tobey, Isiah Wilkins and incoming freshman Jarred Reuter to do the same.

Foundational elements like Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes can continue to get better.

And Anderson joins Harris and Mike Scott as Tony Bennett UVA players in the NBA, spreading more of that Virginia love that pays dividends on the recruiting trail.

Try to look at this as a win-win for all involved – Anderson, UVA basketball, Bennett.

There’s no alternative, anyway, because yes, that just happened.

– Column by Chris Graham

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