By Josh Barr
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.
Being an attraction is nothing new for Anderson, who has been on the basketball radar for some time now. As an eighth-grader at Spotsylvania Middle School, he obtained special permission to play for the Courtland High junior varsity team.
"People would come to games just to see Justin dunk and if he didn't dunk they would say he's not that good," said Duke freshman forward Josh Hairston, who starred for Courtland's varsity team at the time and was teammates with Anderson last year at Montrose Christian. "That kind of got to Justin early in his career."
While many of Montrose Christian's top players, such as Hairston, transfer from other high schools for one or two seasons, Anderson enrolled at the Rockville private school as a ninth-grader. His father, Edward, who in high school once played basketball against Ralph Sampson, often made the 100-mile drive each way to take Justin to school from the family's home in Montross in Virginia's Northern Neck.
When Anderson was not a prolific scorer in his first two seasons at Montrose Christian, some wondered why he was so highly regarded. This was the youngest player selected to USA Basketball's under-17 team (along with All-Met Player of the Year Quinn Cook, who has since transferred from DeMatha to Oak Hill Academy) that won the world championship last summer? This is the player with so many scholarship offers, though he said he has no favorites?
This season, though, has gone a bit more smoothly. Anderson no longer spends hours in the car each day, instead living with several teammates in a house owned by Vetter adjacent to campus. Each morning, Anderson makes sure not to wake up his roommate, sophomore guard Yuki Togashi, and slips out the door to meet Montrose Christian assistant coach Billy Vernon in the school gym at 6:30 and takes a few hundred shots, trying to hone his stroke before classes begin at 8.
"When I wake up, I don't want to do this, I want to go back to sleep," Anderson said. "But once I get that first shot up, I'm so proud of myself to be doing this."
That determination has made an impression on Vetter, who also believes Anderson's commitment to play defense - not necessarily the easiest thing for a coach to persuade talented players to do - has changed as well.
"Like all young players, when they're coming out of eighth grade, it's all been about fun," Vetter said. "They love to play. They love to jump. Now, Justin has learned there is a lot of work involved. Too many people think work ethic comes naturally. It doesn't.
"To me, he has progressed like a great player should. It's very difficult to come into a program like Montrose and be a star player in the ninth grade. He's played with great players since the day he came on campus. I think he's right on target to become one of the best players in the country in his senior year."