Acrobatic, demonstrative and impulsive, Justin Anderson seemed ill-suited for Tony Bennett's Virginia basketball program. He was an improv comedian reciting Shakespeare, a rock 'n' roller playing Mozart.
Well, maybe Robin Williams can perform Macbeth, and Boyd Tinsley can riff Violin Concerto No. 3.
A 6-foot-6 wing , Anderson enters his sophomore season at Virginia as a highlight waiting to happen and fervent pitchman for the Bennett Way.
"When I'm in the game and it's dead, and everyone's just waiting for something to happen, that's when I can't wait to get on the defensive end and get a stop, or get a … shot-clock violation," Anderson said. "That's when the crowd erupts, and not only our team gets excited, but Coach Bennett gets out of his seat. … You can just see it in his eyes when we get that tough defensive stop and once I see that look … my blood starts moving. …
"The way that we've bought in on the defensive end, I think our fans are even starting to realize, hey, this is what we're made of. You come to Charlottesville, you come to John Paul Jones Arena, our defense is going to be hard."
Bennett's defensive principles — the "pack line" crowds and traps opponents inside the 3-point arc — are as exacting as you'll find, and his players often respond. The Cavaliers ranked 20th nationally last season in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency statistics, sixth in 2012, and each of Bennett's three teams at Washington State were top-20 as well.
Like most freshmen, Anderson needed time to grasp Bennett's demands, but his jumping ability, aggressiveness and wide wingspan make him a defensive natural. He blocked a team-high 42 shots, often floating in from the weak side to swat the ball out of bounds and energize the crowd.
"The defense is so fun because it frustrates a lot of people," Anderson said. "I tell my teammates all the time, 'Man, I'm just so happy I didn't go to another school in the ACC and have to play against this defense.' It's so hard to get what you want. … Guys get frustrated, and that's what we pride ourselves on."
But for as much as Anderson preaches defense, his flair on the offensive end — passing, dunking and reacting — most wows fans. It's a style that he brought to Virginia from Boo Williams' travel team and Montrose Christian Academy in Maryland.
Driving the lane against Mississippi Valley State, Anderson faked a behind-the-back pass to Mike Tobey and threw down with two hands. His reverse dunk off a long lob pass from Jontel Evans brought the house down in a rout of Clemson.
Anderson started 17 of 35 games and was Virginia's No. 3 scorer at 7.6 points per game. He closed the season with 57 points in three NIT games, including a college-best 24 in a quarterfinal loss to Iowa. His 81 assists were second on the team to point guard Evans.
But for all of Anderson's offensive promise, his shot selection needs work. He made only 30.3 percent of his 3-point attempts, a far more effective 47.3 percent inside the arc.
Senior forward Akil Mitchell said Anderson "had some soundness issues" as a freshman and, like most rookies, needs to balance his "dynamic high school self" and his "college maturity."
"Once he finds that," Mitchell said, " he'll be a great player. It just comes through time."
Bennett beamed when I relayed Mitchell's comments, calling them "perfect."
"Show me a freshman that doesn't have soundness issues," Bennett said with a laugh, "and then you've got a rare one. You never want to take away who a kid is. You want him to enjoy his freedom. But there have to be some guardrails, and as long as they know that and you can interact with them, that's the key. …
"His passion, that's contagious. I never want to take that away. … He's a dynamic, charismatic, engaging guy, and I want him to be that way. As long as I have the understanding with a guy like Justin, or any of my players, 'Listen, enough, I gotta call on you on this one.'"
The highlight video of Virginia's season, with several clips of Anderson bouncing up-and-down on the sideline and waving a towel to exhort the crowd, was telling to Bennett.
"When I see guys pulling as hard as he does for his teammates that are in his spot when he's sitting on the bench, I'm sold," Bennett said. "He's genuinely happy. Of course, he's competitive and he wants to play, … but that's the stuff where I say, 'That's what this is about.' I wish more young men could understand that, and he really does.
"His strength is in the team. … He's not this guy, we'll give (him) the ball … and he'll dominate games. He impacts the game in a bunch of different ways. He can get to the rim, he can post, he can offensive rebound, he can block shots, he can be sound. He's getting better at driving, pull-up shots."
Mitchell and senior guard Joe Harris are returning All-ACC players, but if the Cavaliers are to make the NCAA tournament and reach their top-25 potential, they'll need marked improvement from underclassmen such as Anderson. And while Anderson is more gifted than his elders, he holds them in the highest regard.
"The next step is being more sound," he said. "I think it's all upstairs now. The talent, physically, I think I'm fine. … Thinking the game differently, letting the game slow down. I've been getting a lot of knowledge. I've been picking Joe's brain as much as I can before he leaves, just trying to figure out every little detail I can from him because he's exactly what I want to be … as I get older and mature in this program."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun