CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia sophomore Justin Anderson leaned back and smiled Saturday afternoon, reveling in his latest game-changing play.
“That’s just who I am,” Anderson explained initially, the result of God-given talent and a predisposition for creating explosive moments on the basketball court.
But then the player Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett refers to as his team’s “X-factor” began to delve deeper into his memory banks, to when he sat on the end of the bench and longed to be noticed.
Before Anderson dunked in the fifth grade or received the distinction of being the nation’s top eighth-grader or even earned All-Met honors during a four-year stint at Montrose Christian, his father, Edward, coached his older brother’s 15-and-under AAU team.
He had Justin, then just 8 years old, play as well, but Anderson only got into games during blowouts. He remembered scoring five points once. Otherwise, he was the little kid tagging along with a bunch of teenagers at that point.
“The only way I could be known on the court is if I talked a lot and I hit a good shot or I’m playing defense. It wasn’t like I was always put in the position where: ‘Okay, he’s really good at basketball. Let’s give him the ball,’” Anderson said.
“It was just one of those things where I tried to be different out there. I tried to do the little things.”
The array of skills Anderson has developed since then have been thrust into the forefront in recent weeks as No. 12 Virginia tries to secure its first outright ACC regular season title since 1981. Simply put: The Cavaliers, who face Miami on Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, wouldn’t be in first place in the ACC without their 6-foot-6, 227-pound do-everything sixth man.
In two straight home games — against Maryland on Feb. 10 and Notre Dame this past Saturday, both Cavaliers victories — Anderson swooped out of nowhere for come-from-behind blocks that ignited the crowd and completely changed the momentum in the second half.
Last week at Virginia Tech, meanwhile, Anderson dived after a loose ball, a play Bennett said awakened the team just in time. The Montross, Va., native then scored all nine of his points in the final four minutes, including two three-pointers after he had been in a 1-for-20 slump from beyond the arc, and the Cavaliers escaped with a 57-53 win.
“He lives for the limelight. He lives for moments like that,” forward Akil Mitchell said. “Anytime he can get the crowd going, any time he can get excited, he thrives in that.”
It’s this tendency for highlight-reel plays that drew some raised eyebrows when Anderson announced he would be coming to Virginia in May 2011. Originally committed to Maryland before former Coach Gary Williams retired, Anderson’s naturally exuberant disposition seemed an illogical fit for Bennett’s methodical, defense-first philosophy.
But below the surface was a player willing, and perhaps best suited, to accept a role, one that now gives Virginia’s lineup a versatility few in the country enjoy. Anderson comes armed with a streaky jump shot and a knack for getting to the rim on offense, with the speed and strength to guard point guards and power forwards on defense.
A student-section favorite, he’s also usually good for a well-timed block or a rim-rattling jam thanks to his innate athleticism.
“We definitely feed off him, but the difference is we know what he can and cannot do,” leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon said. “We can sort of sense when he’s about to do something amazing, something really acrobatic. But we definitely feed off of him and his intensity and his athletic plays.”
Anderson admits coming off the bench can be a “nerve-wracking . . . mind game” because he’s unsure if he’ll be entering a game because of fatigue or to provide a spark. But like the rest of the team, Anderson learned to trust Bennett’s judgment and he’s currently averaging 8.9 points and 3.5 rebounds with the Cavaliers steamrolling through ACC competition.
It remains an ongoing process, though. Just as his animated play often jolts Virginia’s offense to life, Anderson’s shot selection and flair for the dramatic can sometimes draw the ire of Bennett and his desire for a patient approach.
But as the clock wound down Saturday afternoon, and and another game-altering afternoon came to a close, Bennett put an arm around Anderson’s shoulder and expressed his gratitude.
“I really think he’s doing the things that are helping us win. He’s doing some special things,” Bennett said. “I kind of affirmed to him that I liked what I saw.”