Rookie rarity: Justin Anderson earning coach Rick Carlisle's trust

DALLAS -- Justin Anderson wants to set the record straight about Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle's reputation for detesting rookies.

"I don't know where coach got the bad name for the rookies and all of that," Anderson told ESPN.com a couple days after he made a game-saving block in the final seconds of the Mavs' series-tying upset in Oklahoma City. "He always boosts my confidence, telling me, ‘You're doing a great job doing this and that.' He's been phenomenal for me."

Could this be a case of a rookie hoping to get more minutes by kissing up to his coach? That's a decent conspiracy theory, especially considering Anderson's reaction to a reporter trying to trick him into confirming the Mavs' starting lineup a few hours before Game 1 by asking if he received an explanation for why he was coming off the bench.

Anderson got up, walked about 20 feet down the sideline and asked Carlisle if the Mavs' lineup had been released. Carlisle, who would probably rather provide his social security number than reveal his starters earlier than the NBA-mandated 16 minutes before tip-off, answered that it had not. After ratting out the reporter, Anderson walked back down the sideline and relayed a message, "Coach said to ask him about the lineup."

OK, so the kid is kind of a coach's pet, and Carlisle certainly played a significant role in earning his rookie-hating reputation. He has admitted that his unwillingness to rely on young players, particularly Tayshaun Prince, was one of the primary reasons he was fired after a pair of 50-win seasons with the Detroit Pistons. Carlisle has never had a rookie in the rotation of a playoff team during his eight-year stint in Dallas. Not coincidentally, in the past decade, the Mavs haven't had a first-round pick develop into a decent NBA player.

Until now.

Anderson insists, however, that there should be no controversy about why the 21st overall pick spent much of his rookie season riding the bench.

"The reason why I wasn't playing, it wasn't because he didn't want to play me," said Anderson, who was inactive or received a DNP-CD 27 times this season before playing a major role in the Mavs' late-season playoff push. "It was because I wasn't ready to produce."

Maybe so, but Anderson was absolutely ready when the Mavs needed him most. His insertion into the starting lineup helped spark a late-season, six-game win streak that set the Mavs up to make the playoffs.

It can be argued that Anderson's arrival in Dallas' rotation was due to desperation. After all, it came after the Mavs lost 10 of 12 games to fall a few games under .500 in March. The Mavs had been playing three-guard lineups almost all the time since forward Chandler Parsons suffered a season-ending knee injury. Dallas was one of the league's worst defensive teams during its slump -- with more than 113 points allowed per game -- and almost as dreadful in the rebounding department.

It was time to give the 6-foot-6, 228-pound Anderson, who has a 6-foot-11 wingspan and 43-inch vertical leap, the chance to fly.

"We had to throw him back out there in the mix," said Dirk Nowitzki, the locker room neighbor whom Anderson refers to as simply "Six," a reference to his spot on the all-time scoring list. "With the way things were going, we were struggling. We needed some athleticism.

"He just proved to be ready. You can practice all you want. You never know until you get game minutes, until you get confident out there. What he brings is sometimes what we lack: that hard-charging, never-give-up, always-go-hard guy. It's something that we needed."

Anderson had endeared himself to his veteran teammates with his innocent intensity. His constant curiosity is a source of comedic fodder in the locker room. Sometimes, his teammates roll their eyes at the 22-year-old rookie's questions, occasionally wrestling him to the ground as a group when they really want the kid to shut up.

"He's asking a million questions a day," said 10-year veteran guard J.J. Barea, a mentor to Anderson. "He's not afraid to ask dumb questions, good questions or bad questions. He's doing all the talking. Sometimes we gotta go, ‘Just chill a little bit.'"

Nevertheless, the vets appreciated Anderson's desire to learn and improve, especially as he dealt with the frustration of his minutes being mostly limited to garbage time. They commended him for consistently showing up to the gym early to work with player development coach Mike Procopio. The saw steady improvement during practice, as Anderson's rookie mistakes, such as running to the wrong spot, became rarer and rarer.

All the vets were rooting for Anderson. He earned their respect by rising to the occasion and excelling as a glue guy during the critical win streak, in which he averaged 9.2 points on 54.3 percent shooting, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 27.8 minutes per game.

Anderson also seemed to finally earn Carlisle's trust, though he was demoted from the starting lineup when the stakes got highest, and he came off the bench in what amounted to a play-in game in Utah the night after the six-game win streak was snapped.

"Trust is earned over time, with actions," Carlisle said. "I just love the way the kid approached the whole season. There was a steep learning curve, but he got better, he adapted, he adjusted, he learned a lot. And then, when his time came for his number to be called, he was ready. He's kept it simple. He's been a force for us, defensively and on the boards. His experience over the last two-plus weeks has prepared him to become a guy that we're going to have to count on in the NBA playoffs."

Carlisle said that the day before the first-round series started. Then he played Anderson a grand total of four minutes in the first half of the Thunder's Game 1 rout. Carlisle pulled Anderson from the game and shouted at him after he passed up an open corner 3-pointer right in front of the Mavs' bench.

Whether Anderson wants to admit it or not, the roller-coaster of being a rookie under Carlisle can be rough.

Of course, it's worth mentioning that Carlisle hasn't had much rookie talent to work with during his time in Dallas. Jae Crowder, a second-round pick, has been the only rookie to get regular minutes, and that was for the only Mavs team in the past 16 seasons that missed the playoffs.

There was a lot of buzz about Rodrigue Beaubois -- "Free Roddy B!" the fan base cried as he showed flashes of brilliance as a fringe rotation player -- but Carlisle ended up being right in his concerns about the finesse guard's mental and physical toughness. Beaubois' career fizzled so quickly that he never signed with another NBA team.

There are no such concerns about "Simba," as Anderson is known to Mavs fans because of his resemblance to a lion. The nickname also fits his ferocious style. He's still awfully raw, offensively -- hence Carlisle's demand to keep it simple -- but Anderson is a rugged defender and relentless rebounder. (Among players 6-foot-6 or under, only Denver's Will Barton had a better rebounding percentage than Anderson's 10.7, according to NBA.com stats.)

Carlisle has counted on Anderson in crunch time in the Mavs' two biggest wins of the season. His driving dunk with 30 seconds remaining was the dagger in the playoff-clinching win in Utah. His block of Kevin Durant's layup attempt with 3 seconds left helped the Mavs pull off the Game 2 upset.

"He's got a great sense of timing, certainly a flair for the dramatic, although that's not really what he's all about," Carlisle said, noting Anderson has had a handful of clutch blocks the past few weeks. "He's just a nails kind of guy, and he loves to compete."

The Mavs picked Anderson with the hope that he'd be a much bouncier version of Crowder, who has flourished since being traded to Boston. That projection certainly seems reasonable as Anderson nears the end of his rookie season.

"He could really turn out to be the steal of the draft," owner Mark Cuban said.

"He's going to be a great system player, at the least, and he certainly has the ability to be more than that," Carlisle said. "What we told him this year, from the beginning of the year going forward, is work at becoming a guy that can play conservatively but aggressively within the system and within your abilities. He certainly has done that. Over the last three weeks, he's demonstrated that he's come a long way."