Montrose Christian's Justin Anderson works to make most of rare athletic gifts

Justin Anderson has always had the athleticism, but with a lot of hard work during his time at Montrose Christian, the rest of his game is starting to catch up.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:13 AM

Justin Anderson was in the fifth grade when he first dunked on a regulation basket. As an eighth-grader, he received special permission to play on his local high school's junior varsity team.

Now a junior at top-ranked Montrose Christian, Anderson is in his third season playing at one of the Washington area's basketball powerhouses. He spent the past two summers as a member of USA Basketball's junior national teams and "can go to any college that he wants," according to his high school coach.

At 17, he's freakishly athletic, with any play down the court likely to produce an above-the-rim highlight. But what he is working most diligently on is to establish himself as something else: a complete basketball player.

"Not just someone who can drive to the basket and dunk," said Anderson, now 6 feet 7 and a solid 215-pound forward. "Someone who can also pull up and make a 15-footer."

As the season reaches its midpoint, it appears Anderson is on his way. He steadily increased his scoring average, from five points per game as a freshman, to 7.5 as a sophomore and now to 15.6 points per game this season.

Earlier this month, in a 70-42 victory over then-No. 12 St. Stephen's/St. Agnes, Anderson slammed home a slightly off-target alley-oop pass with such grace that the Mustangs' normally stern-faced coach, Stu Vetter - who has sent more than 100 players to college basketball and eight to the NBA - broke into a rare smile.

"I will dispute the fact that I smiled," Vetter, in his 36th season coaching high school basketball in the area, later said with a broad grin. "But if I was smiling, it was because of the fact that he took a relatively average or below-average pass and made it into a spectacular assist. Justin has the ability to do that. When he goes up in the air, he not only has great hands but also a powerful finish."

While that dunk was the lasting impression for many in attendance, more notable were Anderson's other accomplishments in the game. He looked comfortable shooting from the outside, draining three three-point shots - half of last season's entire total. And he scored 23 points, the first time in his high school career that he reached the 20-point mark.

"Any time people see the athleticism at a young age, they automatically assume that the basketball skills are there, but the basketball skills are developed over a period of time," Vetter said. "Now, Justin has developed the basketball skills to go along with his athleticism. You put those two together, and you end up with a great player."

The final verdict might not be in. Many in the basketball community have watched Anderson through the years and wonder when, or if, he will fulfill the oversized expectations heaped on him. Always taller than his peers and able to get by on sheer athleticism, Anderson has long been in the basketball spotlight.

"It is very difficult for a young player nowadays to deal with the excessive hype that goes along with all the ratings services, the Internet, the TV exposure," Vetter said. "Everything becomes very difficult for a young player to handle. In Justin's case, the expectations were as high as anyone I've coached."

The list of players Vetter has sent to the NBA includes Dennis Scott and Kevin Durant. Even in the five years since Durant spent his senior year at Montrose Christian, the attention given to high school basketball has intensified. This season, for instance, Fox College Sports plans to air a reality show, Hoops Academy, chronicling the Mustangs' season.

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