CHARLOTTESVILLE – Justin Anderson ended up at Virginia for other reasons than the preternatural talent he showed Thursday night, when he had two sensational plays against Clemson — a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass and a reverse dunk on an alley-oop — that landed him on national highlight reels.
Take, for instance, his reaction to that emphatic second-half slam against the Tigers, courtesy of a pass from point guard Jontel Evans. He said he savored it for a moment — “Jontel said I was in the air for a long time,” he noted sheepishly — before feeling compelled to explain his intentions on the play.
“I didn’t do it backwards to be fancy,” Anderson said, unprompted. “It was just where the ball happened to be and I just had to finish it.”
Upon leaving John Paul Jones Arena, his first tweet was not about being reinserted into Virginia’s starting lineup that night. It was a declaration that Evans was “the best point guard ever for making that great pass. That highlight wouldn’t have been there without him.”
Such a response shouldn’t be surprising. Following Virginia’s 65-51 win over Boston College on Jan. 26, Anderson approached Eagles Coach Steve Donahue and apologized for two dunks in the final three minutes of a blowout.
Anderson’s rare blend of athleticism and self-awareness — a notable achievement, considering he was once hailed as the top eighth-grader in the country — has begun to surface in recent weeks, and none too soon for the Cavaliers (16-6, 6-3 ACC).
He is averaging 6.5 points this season, but has finished in double figures in four of the past five games.
Coach Tony Bennett has called his play “contagious.”
“The kid’s just out of this world with energy,” forward Akil Mitchell said. “He’s always talking. He gets annoying at times, but he brings so much energy to the locker room, on the bus, in the hotel, and it brings a different dynamic to this team that we haven’t really seen in a few years.”
His frenetic style will be a polarizing factor when Virginia visits Maryland (17-6, 5-5) on Sunday in a clash of ACC teams on the NCAA tournament bubble.
An All-Met who grew up in Montross, Va., Anderson could have been in College Park right now. He originally committed to the Terrapins, but changed his mind once Gary Williams retired from coaching following the 2010-11 season and new Coach Mark Turgeon didn’t retain former assistant Rob Ehsan.
The Cavaliers were always Anderson’s second choice behind Maryland, and he credits a spiritual bond with Bennett for making the decision a comfortable one. But he also wasn’t looking for promises of immediate playing time.
Anderson wanted to be close to home and relished the structure he encountered while waiting his turn behind other stars at Montrose Christian and with the Hampton, Va.-based Boo Williams AAU program. It allowed Anderson to look past the stereotypes about Virginia’s program, namely that the Cavaliers favor a low-scoring, defense-first scheme.
“I just told him, ‘This is who we are,’ ” Bennett said.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Why don’t you want to do a run-and-gun?’ ”Anderson said this week. “Well, you know, you gotta learn all different aspects of the game, because you never know, if I make it to the next level, what type of team I’ll play for. And I don’t have any control over that. So I think I’m adding a new dimension to my game and I think it’s gonna do nothing but help.”
For a freshman, Anderson is remarkably cognizant of his deficiencies, according to Virginia’s coaches.
He has said he got a big head from the recruiting process and was surprised by the learning curve he encountered early this season, when he struggled with his shooting.
His teammates admired the extra work he put in during his shooting slump, and Anderson still earned consistent playing time because of his defense and physicality, traits that are especially important now that forward Darion Atkins (shin) and fcenter Mike Tobey (mononucleosis) are sidelined.
It’s this willingness to look past the flashy dunks that distinguishes him from the typical top 100 recruit.
During the first half Thursday night, Anderson tried to dribble behind his back, through his legs and between two defenders before turning over the ball. He then fumbled an easy rebound out of bounds on defense.
The sequence earned him a spot on the bench, and as Anderson walked down the sideline to slap hands with his teammates, Bennett stalked behind him. He wanted to ensure his freshman knew “there’s no need for that.”
For Anderson, it might have been more satisfying than any highlight.
“Actually, I love that moment,” he said. “It’s one of those things where it’s like, I’m so happy to be here because I have someone to hold me accountable.”