Justin Anderson was acquired by the Hawks in July in a series of moves that resulted in Dennis Schroder being moved to Oklahoma City, clearing the way for Trae Young to own the starting point guard position from the jump of the 2018-19 NBA season. Anderson was not, as it turns out, just a throw in to make the transaction legal from a salary requirements standpoint. He served a very purposeful role for Atlanta across the season despite posting a career low in minutes played.
Having played for a season and a half with then-assistant coach Lloyd Pierce in Philadelphia, he had a unique understanding of what the Hawks’ first-year head coach expected of his players. He also arrived with a brand of setting the bar for his teammates as to how hard one should work regardless of expectations related to playing time. He’s also broadly considered one the better teammates in the league.
A simple glance at his statistics don’t do justice in reflecting the value he brought to a young team trying to initiate a trajectory of improvement. In his limited playing time, he shot the ball largely on par with the way he has across his four-year career. He’s not skilled offensively in any area of play that would be considered above average, but, as he has across his time in the league, he delivered more value on defense than offense. The Hawks were 5.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the court than when he wasn’t.
Anderson’s potential role on a team with serious aspirations is likely not a full time rotational player, but he is capable of taking on uniquely challenging defensive assignments when facing teams with elite playmakers. He wasn’t perfect on the defensive end, especially as his playing time ramped up across the latter part of the season, but that could be related to the priorities for the team this season, as discovered by outsiders on the day of exit interviews.
“The only difference is his defensive mentality,” said Anderson when asked about playing under Pierce as head coach in Atlanta as compared to last season in Philadelphia. “He hasn’t yet brought that to Atlanta. When that does come, it’s going to be really fun to watch.”
“This year, we wanted to outscore a lot of guys,” he added. “We wanted to make sure our offensive flow and our rhythm was good, because we have so many high-octane scorers.”
“We’re just not ready for that yet,” Pierce explained when asked to follow up on Anderson’s comments. “We haven’t had enough basketball experience as a group and a lot of our players just yet. What Justin’s saying is true.”
If you let Anderson’s teammates tell the story of his season it reflects just how valuable he was, especially early in the season when the team was struggling mightily.
“I think the best one for me was Justin Anderson,” said Trae Young when asked which teammate helped him across his first NBA season. “Just him always supporting me, always encouraging me to be my best and not to worry about anything else but to worry about this team. Him being around really helped me this year.”
Kevin Huerter also expressed gratitude for how Anderson helped him handle the ups and downs of his first professional season.
“We got close off the court,” said Huerter about Anderson. “He’s someone whose career to this point has been up and down, even this year. He didn’t get much of an opportunity all year and when he did, he played great. It was just the mentality of staying positive all year.”
Anderson will enter restricted free agency at the official end of the 2018-19 NBA season. If they wish, the Hawks will be able to match any offer sheet he might sign with another team. An important part of that consideration will be what the Atlanta front office intends to do with their available cap space.
Anderson will be possessing a $7.5M cap hold, which could be a sizable obstacle to a transaction the team might want to execute. To retain the right to match the offer sheet of another team the Hawks will need to extend Anderson a $3.6M qualifying offer, which is something that would require serious consideration as well. That’s a higher salary than most players make who are uncertain to be in the rotation for the entirety of a season. Most prognosticators would pan a decision to bring Anderson back at $3.6 million for next season, but there is a chance the two sides could come to an agreement separately from his qualifying offer.
Anderson is on record that he hopes to find a way to be back with the team next season. “What he’s going to do in the future here is going to be great,” Anderson said about his head coach. “And I hope I get a chance to be a part of it.”
It’s evident his teammates feel the same way.