Justin Anderson is the X-Factor in Big D

For a Dallas Mavericks organization that has (mostly) ignored the NBA Draft since stealing Dirk Nowitzki from Milwaukee in a deal 20 years ago, sophomore Justin Anderson is a ray of hope for both the present and future. 

After a ho-hum showing in the regular season, the 21st pick of the 2015 NBA Draft enjoyed a mini-breakout in a short but sweet postseason series against Oklahoma City. Increasing his averages across the board in 19 minutes per game, Anderson averaged 9.4 points (45.9 FG, 30.8 3Pt, 64.3 FT), 4.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.6 blocks in five playoff contests against a Thunder defense that pushed the Warriors to the brink of elimination.

At 6-6 with a near 7-0 wingspan, the sky is the limit for the former Virginia Cavalier star in a league where 3-and-D wings have become among the most valuable players. Anderson is confident heading into his second season, and the soon-to-be 23-year-old will provide much-needed depth at the wing on a Mavericks team that just replaced Chandler Parsons with Harrison Barnes.

Anderson made tremendous strides on offense as the season went on–which were showcased against the Thunder in late April. However, his biggest impact in the NBA will probably be on defense, an area the Mavericks improved by swapping in Andrew Bogut for Zaza Pachulia. Still, with Dirk aging, Dallas has to do a lot in order to make up for him on D. Anderson was a stud defender at the college level, and with a full season under his belt, it’s essentially a given that he’ll be noticeably stingier on that end as a sophomore. The Mavs are certainly counting on it.

Rick Carlisle has pulled out plenty of tricks in the past, running three-guard lineups galore last season featuring some combination of Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Raymond Felton, and Devin Harris. The problem is it only works against teams that can’t capitalize on the millions of mismatches.

What will be interesting to me this year is whether Carlisle tries something that’s completely opposite. Standing at 6-5, Mathews isn’t massive, but he boasts a 6-8 wingspan. Deron Williams is 6-3 with a 6-6 wingspan. Harrison Barnes has a 6-11 wingspan. If Anderson can take a big step forward in his second season, that affords Carlisle several guards and wings with legitimate length.

A four-man lineup of Williams, Mathews, Anderson, and Barnes would be interesting no matter who’s at center. Dirk would offer maximum spacing and minimal rim-protection. Bogut would provide post passing, strong screens, elite interior defense, and more wingspan. Salah Mejri might be Bogut-Lite. And Dwight Powell offers the Mavs the most bounce and quickness.

Seth Curry has also been scorching hot at times during preseason, so he deserves some X-Factor consideration as well. Sure, Seth is not Steph, and he never will be. But let’s not forget: though there are extenuating circumstances (coaching decisions, fit with Monta Ellis, injuries), Steph did not break out during his NBA career until a later age. He showed glimpses of promise that he could become a force on the same level that he was in college, but for many reasons the consistency wasn’t there for a while. Even on a team with more points guards than Carlisle himself could ask for, Curry should have a shot to succeed.

The roster features limited upside, so Carlisle and company would be smart to turn over every rock and embrace creativity. That’s the only way that Dallas can get the most out of Dirk’s remaining years, and it’s their best chance at transitioning into the post-Nowitzki Era.

Another one of the major keys for Anderson’s ability to stay on the court will be whether he can make open shots. As long as Nowitzki is still nimble, there will always be good looks to go around. Anderson’s 3-point shooting hovered around 30 percent during his first two college campaigns before skyrocketing to 45.2 percent in his third and final year, so there is a history of substantial progress.

If Anderson can take a step forward as a defender and long distance shooter heading into year two of his pro career, the Mavericks’ place in the playoffs might be more secure than anticipated–and their future might not be as bleak as we thought.

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