HOUSTON -- Justin Anderson, just whistled for his second charge on a reckless drive within a span of 91 seconds early in the fourth quarter, jogged the length of the court and sat down next to owner Mark Cuban at the end of the Dallas Mavericks' bench.
Anderson sat there until the start of garbage time in the Mavs’ 109-87 loss to the Houston Rockets on Saturday. As well-cushioned as it might be, it’s certainly not a comfortable seat for Anderson, whose sophomore slump has been one of several bummers in a miserable first six weeks for the Mavs.
With a promising finish to his rookie season, Anderson, the 21st overall pick in the 2015 draft, provided hope that he was one of the rarest NBA species: a good draft pick by Dallas. He ranked high among the reasons for hope entering his sophomore season that the post-Dirk era didn’t have to be a disaster in Dallas.
However, Anderson has regressed so far this season. He’s right back to where he was a year ago, as a wide-eyed rookie: a fringe rotation player trying to find his place in the NBA. He’s struggling to find a rhythm after creating a niche during Dallas’ playoff push last season as a complementary piece alongside Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea, two Mavs mainstays who are out due to injuries.
“Right now, I’m just trying to figure out a way to help our team win,” Anderson said. “Whether that’s encouraging or being ready at all times. I’ve got to be ready.”
Anderson picked up his first DNP-CD of the season in Friday’s win over the Indiana Pacers. He sat in favor of Nicolas Brussino, a skinny, undrafted rookie who would be better suited getting seasoning in the D-League. This comes weeks after undrafted rookie Dorian Finney-Smith, the fill-in starter while Nowitzki nurses his sore Achilles tendon, leaped Anderson on the depth chart. Anderson played a grand total of 12 minutes on the second night of the back-to-back, and he cracked double digits only because Carlisle waved the white flag with Dallas down double digits with four minutes remaining.
Garbage time didn’t exactly provide a confidence boost for Anderson, either. He knocked down a 3, but he missed his final three shots, the last one in embarrassing fashion as the rim rejected his uncontested, two-handed dunk attempt.
Finney-Smith's showing the potential to be a useful role player is among the few bright spots in a miserable season for the Mavs, whose 5-18 record is tied for worst in the NBA. But it’s balanced by the major disappointment of Anderson’s developmental detour.
“Look, we love him,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said of Anderson. “He’s a big part of our future. Bumps in the road are a fact of life with first-, second- and third-year players.”
A Dallas team starved for young talent desperately needs Anderson to be a long-term asset. The Mavs have drafted a grand total of one legitimate NBA player in the past decade -- and they gave away second-round steal Jae Crowder in the disastrous Rajon Rondo deal.
Anderson’s ceiling is to be a bouncier version of Crowder, who has emerged as an excellent glue guy with the Boston Celtics. Like Crowder, the 6-foot-6, 228-pound Anderson is a powerfully built wing with the physical tools to be a ferocious defender.
Anderson’s soft 3-point touch as a junior at Virginia has yet to translate to the NBA, as he has shot just 26.6 percent from beyond the arc. He’s very limited as an offensive player -- his strength is his finishing ability, never mind his blooper miss late in Saturday’s loss -- and he often looks tentative and lost on that end of the floor.
Carlisle has stressed to Anderson the importance of playing with energy, aggressiveness and simplicity. Anderson thought he did just that on the two drives that ended with whistles against him.
“Now we’re in a situation where there’s more playmaking to be made, there are more reads, and it’s just more challenging for him and all of the younger guys,” Carlisle said, referring to the impact of the absences of Nowitzki and Barea. “He has to be aggressive, but those kinds of reads are where young players historically have a learning curve -- recognizing which guys on the floor are guys that take charges, when is the time to shoot it and when is the time to drive it and all those kinds of things.”
Anderson, who is playing both wing positions and some power forward, admits that his head is spinning. He acknowledges that it’s hard to keep his head up as the losses mount and his minutes dwindle.
It hasn’t been all bad this season for Anderson. He has been a major factor in two of the Mavs’ five wins, a 14-point, eight-rebound night in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans that Carlisle called Anderson’s best performance as a pro and an 11-point, five-rebound outing in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. But those efforts are easily forgotten amidst all the frustration.
“Highs and lows of what? It’s been all lows, man,” said Anderson, who is averaging 7.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 37.3 percent from the floor in 19.5 minutes per game. “We’ve been losing. It’s hard. It’s hard.”
The Mavs love the 23-year-old Anderson’s character. He wants to be good and works hard. But there is some concern that Anderson can be too hard on himself. Asked about his confidence, Anderson sighs heavily.
“Yeah, I’m hanging in there. It’s tough. It’s tough,” he said. “It’s just something that every day I’m trying to embrace because I never want to be in this place again. It’s a quick spiral down if you allow it to take control of your life and take control of the work that you put in and things like that.
“All I can do is grab it by the horns and just continue to fight because right now I’m going through a big learning experience.”