Justin Anderson is still making the leap

Sep 28, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks rookie guard Justin Anderson (1) poses for a photo during Media Day at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sportsg
Sep 28, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks rookie guard Justin Anderson (1) poses for a photo during Media Day at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sportsg /

The contents of the Amway Center visitors’ locker room don’t vary much. Scattered clothing, towels and the occasional Louis Vuitton bag seem like permanent fixtures; the faces all change even as the items in the background remain a constant.

But Dallas Mavericks rookie Justin Anderson stands out in this regard. Tucked in the corner behind him is a shiny, pink suitcase, adorned with Disney princesses that beam brightly in stark contrast to the other items in the locker. Was that something he picked for a reason?

“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” Anderson responds, casting his eyes downward for the first time during the interview. Yes, the Little Mermaid does seem somewhat out of place in a sweat-filled room full of adult men.

“No, I didn’t pick it. Deron [Williams] did. Right when we started out the regular season and we took a road trip. I had a really nice bag and he was like, ‘That’s okay but I need to get you something a little different.’ I already suspected where he was going with that and he went online right away and, sure enough, I soon had that waiting for me when I got back home.”

The first year of life in the NBA can be a difficult transition. Constant travel, struggling for consistent playing time and, yes, the incongruous pink suitcase, are all parts of the rookie adjustment. But Anderson – equal parts über-athlete and tireless worker – is definitely up to the task.

“Justin is just a special kid.”

Those are the words of Stu Vetter, one of the winningest high-school coaches in history, and a man that coached Anderson and a “host of other” NBA players, including Dennis Scott, Greivis Vazquez, Terrence Ross and Kevin Durant.

Justin played for Vetter for four years at Montrose Christian High School in Rockville, Maryland, just miles outside of the nation’s capital. But it was a pairing that nearly didn’t happen, if not for Anderson’s father reaching out to Montrose’s head coach by phone.

“His dad called me, out of the blue,” admits Vetter,”and says I have a son that’s 6-4 and really athletic. Normally, when I get those calls, a guy will be about 5-7 and can barely touch the net. But Justin’s dad, his description of Justin was legitimate. He was that type right from the beginning. He was one of those rare athletes…”

Despite that uncommon athletic talent, Anderson wasn’t immediately a star at Montrose. This was a storied program that had moved on from Durant’s departure but was still very much a powerhouse.

“We had a lot of good players, so Justin had to just wait his turn,” says Vetter. There was no doubt about Anderson’s ability – he was definitely being groomed to be the “face of the program” according to his former coach – but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. “He’s not one of those spoiled guys that’s been catered to his entire high school career. He had to earn it – go step-by-step – to become a starter, and then a go-to player. It wasn’t given to him, not like some coddled superstars.”

It was an education for Anderson and all of his teammates, one that included lessons both on and off-the-court. All of Vetter’s players had to wear coats and ties, learn interview techniques and how to present themselves. To do the simple things, like “shake hands and look someone in the eye.” The lessons stuck with Anderson, who Vetter describes as “very bright, very genuine,” and a player “you can have a real conversation with.”

He would leave Montrose a bigger (now at 6’6″), better, and more well-rounded player, choosing to continue his career at the University of Virginia. Again, the pattern repeated itself. “His first year at UVA, he wasn’t a starter right away,” explains Vetter. “He worked his way into the starting lineup and was coached very well there by Tony Bennett and eventually became an outstanding defensive player.”

Anderson made the most of his opportunity as a starter, earning All-ACC and All-American honors during his junior year. After three seasons as a Cavalier, he decided to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the 2015 NBA Draft.

He was selected No. 21 overall by Dallas, a team that exists in a dual state of perpetually rebuilding and challenging for a postseason berth. The roster turnover is frequent but so is the team’s success. They remain a playoff contender, even while incorporating several new players that find a way to contribute.

Anderson is not one of those players.

Unlike many of the draft’s earliest picks, however, Anderson was not expected to be a major factor for Dallas. His selection was one for the future, with potential yet to be fulfilled. He’s learning the ropes slowly, splitting time between the Mavericks and their D-League affiliate, the Texas Legends. The athletic highlights are there, spliced together with more common rookie struggles in 38 appearances with the Mavs, where he averages just 2.8 points, 1.5 rebounds and 8.1 minutes per game.

This might appear to some as proof that Anderson wasn’t ready for the NBA; don’t count Vetter among that group. “He’s the type of the player that will continue to work because he loves to play the game. He will get better as the season moves on, as he gets more experience,” says Vetter in a voice heavy with determination. “And he will learn. He will work in the offseason and be a better basketball player next year than he was this one.”

Setting aside an individual’s abilities or determination, there is the cold reality that success could be at least partially (if not largely) determined by a player’s fit with their respective team. For all of Dallas’ winning ways over the past decade, the argument could be made they don’t draft particularly well.

Several of their most recent selections never panned out or were traded away. Even draftees they didn’t pick (like Jae Crowder, acquired from Cleveland in a draft-day trade in 2012) didn’t really accomplish much until they were sent to thrive elsewhere. Much of the team’s success can be attributed to the presence of Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle, the two constants which the Mavericks seem to perpetually build around.

But Anderson certainly doesn’t believe he would be a better fit elsewhere. “The Mavs have been terrific for me,” he said before a recent game against the Orlando Magic. When asked about his transition from college to the NBA, Anderson responded quickly: “It’s been a seamless one, I would say, and definitely a unique experience. It’s like your dream has finally come true and once it’s right there in front of you, you see there are a lot of similarities, a lot of parallels, from what I’ve learned before.”

Anderson admits there have been “a couple of tough moments” but understands he still has some work to do to compete in the NBA.

The veteran depth in Dallas might be a negative for other rookies but, given his experience at Montrose Christian and Virginia, it’s something that Anderson truly appreciates. “I hear a lot of stories around the NBA from other rookies, basically talking about how their vets don’t talk to them as much and stuff like that,” said Anderson. “I’m just very fortunate to have a group of guys that care about me. They look out for me. They’re just a terrific group of vets. It’s been a phenomenal experience.”

And what of the annual playoff push? Is that an obstacle to his development? “Well, I think it helps because the NBA is really all about winning,” responds Anderson. “Right now, I’m just trying to learn what it takes to be a winner, what it takes to be in the playoffs. Not many second-year players in the NBA can tell what it takes…I’m already speaking on grounds that a lot of people never get to experience.”

Winning as a team is Anderson’s biggest priority and he has never put his own needs above that crucial goal. But his individual development is still a major focus, and he’s applied that long-established work ethic to help him reach his potential.

“It takes a long time,” admits Anderson. “It’s a process. A marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes, I have to tell myself to calm down because it’s only my first year but I want to have so much success so fast – and I don’t mean for myself or to put myself on a pedestal – but just doing the little things and big things to help a team win.”

He sees himself as a future “3-and-D” star, acknowledging similarities between himself and players like San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Chicago’s Jimmy Butler. “Not to compare myself to them,” Anderson sheepishly admits, “but I like the way a lot of players approach the game, understanding the mindset of wanting to guard the best players or bring energy defensively while also knocking down shots offensively.”

Bringing energy is an oft-repeated mantra from Anderson and it’s something that was clearly expected from him when Dallas chose him in the draft. But there’s a need to temper that – to harness it more effectively – and he’s working closely with his coaches and teammates to be a better player.

“In this league, you have to find your niche, and kind of build from there,” explains Anderson. He’s made three-point shooting one of his priorities but acknowledges his low percentage (27.1 percent on 48 attempts) doesn’t reflect that. The main goal is maintaining intensity and developing versatility.

“I’ve embraced that,” he adds decisively.

He also looks to Nowitzki as a mentor. While their styles are hardly comparable, the future Hall-of-Famer’s approach is certainly one worth emulating. “There’s always a lot to learn,” explained Anderson. “Once you stop learning in the NBA…I mean, I don’t know if you ever do stop learning. You look at a guy like Dirk, he’s still learning things.”

It’s clear that Anderson’s NBA journey has just begun, with the combination of elite athleticism, tireless dedication and a keen understanding to help guide his way. He sees the obstacles before him as challenges similar to ones he’s overcome before. The quest and his eventual destination – stardom – are clear. He’ll get there someday, appreciating each step along the way.

Bright, pink suitcase and all.