If you're looking at the future of this Dallas Mavericks team, three young players stand out — Justin Anderson, Salah Mejri and Dwight Powell. Now, these guys may not become superstars (we'll have to consult Mark Cuban on the proper definition), but successful NBA teams have players that fill unique niches outside of their stars. For the next few weeks, I'll examine each of these three players, where they fit in the future and where they must improve for next season. Today, we start with …
One thing you have to love about Anderson is that everything he does has energy attached to it. Whether it 's shooting, rebounding, defending or running the floor, there is no slow down in this guy. The only proof you need is this video from the Oklahoma City series of Anderson dunking a missed free throw by Devin Harris and dishing out a behind-the-back assist to Dwight Powell.
He's like that all the time. His motor has no quit. Now, you expect that from a young player. But as Anderson received more playing time during the season he became less discouraged when things didn't go his way. There's a good rookie trait as well. The best thing the Mavs did for Anderson was allow him to toggle between the Mavs and the Texas Legends, when he wasn't able to get on the floor for the Mavs.
Anderson didn't set the world on fire statistically last season. He played 55 games and ended up with 3.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists and 0.3 steals per game. He averaged only 11.8 minutes per game, so the opportunities were precious. For that reason Anderson didn't register statistically among the Top 20 rookies in any of those categories. In fact, his 11.8 minutes per game was well off No. 10 in that category, Nikola Jokic of Denver (21.7 minutes).
Now, if you like your statistics a little more advanced, there are some encouraging trends. First, Anderson averaged 11.8 points per 36 minutes played (considered the average amount of time a starter plays in the NBA). That would have made him the Mavs' No. 4 scorer last season. His rebounding would have shot up to 7.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. His per 100 possession numbers are even better. That has Anderson averaging a double-double — 16.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Finally, while you can't compare talent in the D-League with talent in the NBA, Anderson's averages in seven D-League games are encouraging — 23.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
Anderson's minutes went up near the end of the season and the playoffs. Some of that was due to injuries. Some of it was the fact that this veteran (read: old) team needed fresh legs and Anderson gave that to them. By playoffs' end head coach Rick Carlisle acknowledged that he had to play Anderson, and not all of it was due to circumstance.
Now comes Anderson's second season. Where must he improve? Here are three areas.
First, shooting. Anderson shot 40 percent from the floor in 2015-16. In truth, to catch up with the rookies in his class he only needs to improve to 43.1 percent to reach the Top 10 statistically, based on last season's numbers. In fact, the No. 10 player on that list, Raul Neto of Utah, attempted 418 shots. Anderson was 71-of-175. Where Anderson really must improve is from distance. He shot 26.5 percent from the 3-point line (22-of-83). As a junior at Virginia he shot 45.2 percent from behind the arc. He improved from 29.4 percent the previous season, so it was a huge jump. I think most expected Anderson to take a step back in that department his rookie season.
So what's logical to hope for? Well, assuming he puts in the work with the Mavs' coaching staff (a heavy dose of staffer Rolando Blackman certainly wouldn't hurt this guy) and gets a higher volume of playing time, sliding up to 45 percent shooting, and 33 percent shooting from the 3-point line, seems reasonable. That would certainly increase Anderson's scoring average, perhaps close to double digits. If you need encouragement, look at his shooting percentages in his seven games with the Legends — 46 percent overall and 33 percent from 3-point. And he was averaging 38.3 minutes per game there.
Second, I would contend that right now Anderson is Dallas' most energetic wing defender. Now he has to become its best wing defender, and he's capable. His miscues on defense were less noticeable in April and in the playoffs, though he still had trouble avoiding the bigger gaffes. Becoming a more consistent defender, especially in transition, would help the Mavs appreciably. Anderson, at 6-foot-6, strikes me as the tough, physical defender that can tangle with a team's No. 1 scoring option at either shooting guard or small forward. The Mavs need it and Anderson has shown flashes that he can provide it.
The third piece is out of his control. He needs a commitment in terms of playing time. You have to earn that, of course. But at times Carlisle has been, shall we say, reticent to play young players in key minutes unless he has to? Anderson's playing time can't be about has-to anymore. It has to be about need-to, as in the Mavs need him on the floor to succeed and Anderson needs to prove he's worthy. Anderson can make that easier with improvement this offseason in the two areas above. My belief is that Carlisle needs to get Anderson 20-25 minutes consistently next season. He should be the first or second player coming off the bench, at worst. (Depending, of course, on what the rest of the roster looks like.)
Anderson is the most promising draft pick the Mavs have had in quite some time. The 2016-17 season should be a graduation season of sorts for Anderson, from a deep bench role to, at worst, a prominent bench role. A starting role, should he earn it, has the likely effect of making these Mavs more athletic and more able to compete in transition on both sides of the floor.