UVA and the NBA: The future for Justin Anderson, but when?

justin dunkThe pending return of UVA junior guard Justin Anderson to the rotation for coach Tony Bennett has Virginia fans fired up and at the same time apprehensive.

Fired up for obvious reasons: the Cavs are 8-0 since Anderson went down late in the first half of a Feb. 7 win over Louisville, but it’s hard to imagine UVA making a deep run into the NCAA Tournament without the do-everything guard in the fold.

Apprehensive: because if Anderson shines as fans hope, this may be it for him. At least that’s the fear spreading through corners of UVA Nation.

And maybe for good reason. A quick look at what the people who try to guess what NBA talent evaluators are thinking has Anderson going mid to late first round in the June draft pretty much across the mock draft board.

I’ve seen Anderson as high as 15 and as low as 28 in the 30-pick first round. The higher, the better, if you’re going to make the leap. (See Mason, Roger.) First-round picks get guaranteed contracts; second-round picks are guaranteed bubkes.

Fans on message boards have been asking each other if Anderson’s eight-game absence would have any impact on his appeal to NBA teams, along with asking about how his relatively modest scoring (13.4 points per game) could impact his status.

To the scoring: it didn’t hurt Joe Harris or Mike Scott, both of whom are in the NBA after playing in Bennett’s defense-first, sacrifice-stats system. The NBA isn’t as impressed as we fans are with college stats.

To the injury: it was his pinky. Sure, it was on his shooting hand, but Anderson has a few games (hopefully more than a few) to demonstrate that his left pinky is A-OK.

The bigger issue to me isn’t his scoring average or the pinky, but rather the questions that scouts have had with Anderson even back when he was hitting close to 60 percent of his three-point attempts. (He’s now at 48.4 percent, still good enough to lead the ACC.)

First, directly with the three-point shooting: was he just on an extended unfathomable hot streak? We definitely heard plenty in the line of whispers from analysts and draftniks who thought maybe what Anderson was doing was too good to be true

To wit, JA shot 30.3 percent and 29.4 percent from three in his first two seasons. His form was always solid even when the numbers didn’t reflect it, and to me the difference this season compared to the previous two, when he was at his peak, was shot selection.

Bennett’s system spreads the floor well, and with London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon getting into the lane from the perimeter, and the interior of Anthony Gill, Darion Atkins and Mike Tobey each shooting over 50 percent from the floor, that means open looks on the wings.

Anderson gets a ton of open looks as a result of the guys around him and because defenders have to respect his ability to shot-fake and drive to the rim.

So you don’t necessarily rate Anderson as a pure shooter at the two, even with the gaudy numbers, as much as you look at him as a guy who is just very, very efficient on offense, able to knock down the open three, able to get to the rim, wise enough to choose the best option.

To the knock: as good as Anderson is at getting to the rim, his ball-handling is a bit suspect, particularly his lack of a right hand. In an odd way, maybe the four weeks that he couldn’t use the left could have been a help, Bennett joked early on that Anderson could use the time away to work on his right hand, but you have to imagine that it wasn’t totally in jest.

Give Anderson a right hand, making defenders worry about him driving weak and strong, in addition to being able to knock down the open three, and a guy that is already a monster on offense becomes, I don’t know, Godzilla.

Anderson already has the reputation of being a top-notch on-ball and help defender, and three years of playing in Bennett’s system will only add to his reputational advantage with NBA executives there.

So there you have Justin Anderson, the player.

Now to Justin Anderson, the kid. When fans ask me my thoughts on what Anderson might do this spring, I tell them about an interview that I was a part of with Anderson after an early-season win at home over George Washington.

The win was the fourth in a row (obvs!) in a four-game, eight-day stretch to start the season, and a reporter standing beside me in the interview huddle with Anderson asked him if he was looking forward to getting a day off after all the basketball.

Anderson answered that he’d love to have the next day off, but the next day was a Saturday, and his football team, the UVA football team, had a big home game, against Miami, and he’d be there cheering them on.

Justin Anderson loves college. He loves being a UVA student. After surgery, he was out the next night at a UVA women’s game cheering them on.

Win or lose this March and April, it’s pretty clear that Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill will be back. As well-regarded as Brogdon and Gill are in the KenPom.com stats renderings, the NBA draft boards have both rated well out of the running for even being second-round picks were they to come out this year.

Win a championship, and the power trio could return for a shot to repeat. Fall short, and the three come back with Perrantes, Tobey, et al, to take one last stab at it.

Justin Anderson, the kid, seems to me to be the kind of kid who will finish out his four years knowing that the NBA will always be there.

But when sports is a career option, you can’t fault a kid who loves college for still thinking that he has to take what the game is giving you, like those open threes that he’s been knocking down all season.

Whenever I think about whether a guy who can go early should stay or go, I think of Anthony Poindexter. I still say Dex is the best UVA football player I’ve ever seen play, and that’s saying a lot, considering my time following UVA sports has seen the likes of Chris Slade, Terry Kirby, Herman Moore, Chris Long, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Thomas Jones, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Matt Schaub, Jamie Sharper, James Farrior … and I’m sure I’m leaving plenty of guys out.

Poindexter was the best of them all, in my view, and had the chance to leave after his junior season, and would likely have been a Top 10 pick had he left early.

Blew his knee out against N.C. State late in his senior year. Had a couple of disappointing seasons in the NFL, most of his time in the league spent on injured reserve, and was done.

Justin Anderson has had his bout of mortality with this pinky injury. Maybe that impacts his decisionmaking, maybe it doesn’t.

I think he benefits by staying another year to work on his shortcomings, basically the ball-handling and the hole in his game driving right, but he can work on that stuff while getting paid to do it, too.

If I had to bet one way or the other, I’d bet on him staying one more year. The Roger Mason example also sticks out to me, the story of a guy that a lot of us thought was a sure mid-first round pick who fell to the second round, and while Mason eventually had a long career in the NBA, it almost never got off the ground (he played in 43 games total in his first three seasons).

Anderson is probably at best a late first round pick, and I don’t see him rolling the dice to give up one more year of college, one more year of college ball, one more year with Brogdon, Gill and the guys, at what may be a 50-50 shot at a guaranteed contract.

At the same time, I’ve listed lots of reasons why he very well could go, and no, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were to make that call, and neither would I blame him.

– Column by Chris Graham

uva basketball team of destiny
Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is now available at a special pre-sale discounted price of $20. The book is expected to ship by May 15, 2019, and expected to retail for $25.
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The book, with additional reporting by Scott Ratcliffe and Zach Pereles, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.
 
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