The Mavericks’ decline can be blamed on a lot of factors. Mark Cuban putting a premium on cap flexibility after their championship run certainly is to blame. Free agents spurning Dallas — sometimes in excruciating form — explains why a quick turnaround wasn’t in the cards. Yet the biggest reason the franchise has been over-reliant on free agency to surround Dirk Nowitzki with talent in the first place is because they’ve been consistently terrible at finding and developing homegrown prospects.
Contention seems out of the question for the moment, so the team needs to get ready for the future. After years of whiffing on draft picks, the Mavericks need to start getting some selections right. If the performance of 2015 draftee Justin Anderson in Summer League is any indication, they are on the right track.
Anderson spent three years at Virginia, where he developed into a defensive beast under Tony Bennett. After coming off the bench his first two seasons with the Cavaliers — earning Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore — he finally had the chance to star after Joe Harris turned pro. The 6-foot-6 forward made the most of it, continuing to show potential in a bigger role. Despite his season being marred by injuries, he made the All-ACC Second Team.
When he was available at 21, the Mavericks pulled the trigger. Anderson doesn’t have star potential, but in the third half of the first round, a future rotation player is a great get. Anderson has prototypical size for an NBA wing and combined a stellar defensive reputation with an improving outside shots. In a lot of ways, he was a safe pick. Those don’t always pan out, however, and with the Mavericks’ history, doubting the selection when Bobby Portis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and R.J. Hunter were on the board was reasonable.
Anderson erased those doubts with his Summer League play. He averaged over 17 points and four rebounds while shooting 38 percent from the NBA three-point line. His ridiculous athleticism was on full display…
…on both ends of the court.
In simple terms, Anderson looked like an NBA player out there, which isn’t always the case with rookies. Better yet, he seems to have the right mentality about his role.
“I’m a three-and-D guy, but also using my athleticism, get out in transition, trying to be versatile,” Anderson told The Washington Post’s Jorge Castillo. “I’m still in the process of defining my role, but it’s going to come and I’m willing to stay patient for it.”
The Mavericks have Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons penciled in as starters at the wing. They’ll surely go with two point-guard lineups at times, since they have Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris and Raymond Felton under contract. Anderson will be fighting John Jenkins for minutes, and if his shot doesn’t abandon him, he should win out. He might even allow Rick Carlisle to bring Matthews along slowly after his Achilles tear and could become a fixture in the rotation as a rookie.
That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than the Mavericks have gotten from their draft picks in a long time. Here’s a list of Dallas’ first round picks for the past 10 years, the minutes they contributed in their first season in the league, how long they stayed with the team and where they are now.
To recap, the Mavericks didn’t have picks in four years. The most one of their picks has stayed in Dallas in the last decade is four years. Four of the six players they selected are no longer in the league and one will likely be in the D-League or Europe after he’s waived from the Cavaliers. The only player with a guaranteed NBA contract didn’t have his third year option picked up. The Mavericks were picking low in the first round all those years, but that’s still a terrible track record.
Since Josh Howard in 2003, they haven’t picked a single rotation caliber player outside the lottery with the exception of second-rounder Jae Crowder. That lack of infusion of young talent is crippling to any team hoping for long-term success. At one point, outspending teams and offering veterans the chance to play with prime Dirk were enough to replenish the rotation with quality players. Those times are now over, caused by the aging of the German star and the new collective bargaining agreement.
That’s why Justin Anderson is so important. If he lives up to the potential he’s showed so far, he’ll be the first good pick the Mavericks have made since Toni Kukoc was still in the league. More importantly, he’ll be a solid building block to plan a return to relevance next season and potentially in the post Dirk-future. Cheap talent is at a premium. The Mavericks seem to be starting to understand that.
It’s a lot of pressure for Anderson to be the player who rights the mistakes of the past. Fortunately for him, the bar has been set so low for what constitutes a good rookie campaign as a Maverick that he’ll surely clear it. After that, it’s impossible to know how good he’ll be. From what he’s showed so far, a long career seems in store, whether in Dallas or elsewhere.