Denton: Anderson Deserves Most Improved Award

By John Denton
April 23, 2012

ORLANDO – Even now, after 64 games, participating in All-Star Weekend and hoisting a NBA most 414 3-pointers, it’s all in a word, ``surreal,’’ for Ryan Anderson.

That’s the best way the sweet-shooting Orlando Magic power forward can sum up an unexpected rise through the NBA ranks that few saw coming this season. Just as important as Anderson’s destination now as the NBA’s most lethal 3-point shooting threat is the climb that he’s taken to get here.

Raised in a non-sports family -- ``my parents wouldn’t know Michael Jordan if he walked down the street,’’ as he once put it – and in a small California town, Anderson is an unlikely, unassuming star. He wasn’t a part of the AAU culture while growing up, was once told by his high school coach that he’d never make it far in basketball and was initially thought to be a throw-in piece in a trade from his first NBA team.

But now that he’s leading the NBA in 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted and is the only player in the league ranked in the top 10 in threes and offensive rebounds – think Kevin Love light – Anderson’s profile has exceeded even his own aw-shucks expectations. He is the NBA’s leading candidate for the Most Improved Player award because, quite frankly, he’s come from the farthest away to evolve into the shooting and rebounding force that he is today.

``There has been so much going on with our team that it’s been hard to take a breather and take a step back, but this year is such a blessing from God for me,’’ said Anderson, who has boosted his scoring from 10.6 points to 15.9 points this season and his rebounding from 5.5 to 7.6 boards a game. ``I’m very humbled by the opportunities that I have gotten and humbled by being a part of the 3-point contest, humbled by it all. It is still surreal for me, and I don’t think it will stop being surreal for me anytime soon.’’

SUBHED: REIGNING IN 3-POINTERS

How about this for surreal? After being a reserve much of his first three seasons in the NBA, Anderson improved so much this season that he earned an integral role on the Magic. And his production has been so dynamic – 20 20-point games, 15 10-rebound performances and 11 nights with at least five 3-pointers – that the same coaches who once overlooked Anderson are now making him a focal point of their game plans.

Phoenix center Marcin Gortat, a close friend of Anderson’s from their time together in Orlando, told a story recently of how Suns coach Alvin Gentry spent his entire halftime sermon on the need to stop Anderson, who had made four 3-pointers in the first 24 minutes of the game. All Anderson did was stroke three more threes in the second half of a Magic victory.

On March 26th in Toronto, Anderson torched the Raptors for six 3-pointers in the first half. So when he opened the second half with another three on his way to 28 points and eight 3-pointers, coach Dwane Casey slumped over as if he wanted to vomit.

Coaches around the league now know that almost as important as Dwight Howard’s muscle on the inside is Anderson’s artillery from long range. And to think that Anderson doesn’t turn 24 years old until May, his potential seems limitless now.

``You started to see it from him last year and last year he was one of the most underrated players in the league,’’ Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of Anderson, who burned the Heat for 27 points, 11 rebounds and five 3-pointers in a Magic win on Feb. 8. ``He shouldn’t be underrated this year because I think that every team he plays against he’s right up there on top of the scouting report. He’s having a very good, very efficient season.’’

And Anderson certainly proved himself to the Philadelphia 76ers this season with three of the best performances of his career. After Anderson battered the Sixers for 20 rebounds in January, Philadelphia coach Doug Collins opted to use Elton Brand on Anderson the second time around. All he did was torch the Sixers for 27 points and seven 3-pointers. And when Collins adjusted his lineup again and put the more agile Thaddeus Young on Anderson in April? All he did was score 26 points, snatch 16 rebounds and have as many offensive boards (eight) as all of the Sixers combined.

``Ryan Anderson is just such a tough cover,’’ Collins muttered. ``Any time that your (power forward) can stretch the floor like that, he makes them a tough team to defend. He is a really good player.’’

Anderson has noticed the change in the way teams defend him of late, especially after the 3-point barrage he put on early in the season. He might possibly be the first player ever to lead the NBA in 3-pointers made from wire-to-wire, hitting six on Christmas’ Opening Night in Oklahoma City and not relenting the rest of the way. His 164 made 3-pointers are 27 more than the next closest player (Dallas’ Jason Terry with 137) and 39 more than leading MVP candidate Kevin Durant (with 125).

Still, Anderson keeps on firing whether he’s all alone or closely contested. His 6-foot-10 frame allows him to get off shots even when guarded and his success this season has led to him firing at will.

``There was a time when I could go out there and get three or four open shots in a row. I remember last season in Boston when I had like four threes in a row because I wasn’t really a part of the game plan yet. But the fact that I am now (on the scouting report), I take it as a huge compliment,’’ he said. ``It makes it more difficult for me and makes me have to expand my game. But it’s cool that teams are kind of changing around their game plan just for me.’’

SUBHED: A SHOOTER AND A REBOUNDER

What makes Anderson unique, however, is that despite spending so much time around the 3-point arc, he is still one of the game’s most aggressive rebounders on the offensive glass. His 3.6 offensive rebounds a game rank sixth in the NBA and are just a tenth of a point off that of Howard, the NBA’s overall leader in rebounding.

Anderson’s numbers compare favorably to those of Minnesota’s Kevin Love, who was having a MVP-caliber season prior to suffering a concussion. Love is second in the league in rebounds and offensive rebounds and 19th in 3-pointers made, while Anderson is sixth in offensive boards, 31st in overall rebounding and first in 3-pointers.

Anderson, a fourth-year pro, said the turning point for him was when the Magic traded Rashard Lewis last season and it opened up more playing time for him and Brandon Bass. The Magic then dealt Bass in December and signed Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis, but Anderson was so good that he stuck as the starter at power forward.

Of course, it also didn’t hurt that Anderson spent much of his offseason and the time during the NBA Lockout boxing and training. That allowed him to hit camp in peak shape and set the stage for a breakout season.

``I think I was prepared for this and my career led me up to being comfortable for this role,’’ Anderson said. ``I had started games before and I knew what it was like coming off the bench. I played a lot of minutes at the end of last year after the (Rashard Lewis) trade. That built up my confidence a ton and I just needed the opportunity. The opportunity has finally been there this year. This was a great opportunity for me this year.’’

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has been both Anderson’s biggest supporter and his biggest critic this season. While he gave Anderson the starting power forward position and the green light to shoot, Van Gundy also pushed him to be more than just a scorer. Even on some of Anderson’s most prolific shooting nights, Van Gundy would chide him for not grabbing enough rebounds, giving up too much space defensively or failing to set good enough screens. The goal, Van Gundy said, is to get the maximum out of Anderson’s vast potential.

``I want the guy striving to be a great player and not just a shooter,’’ Van Gundy said. ``I think he has the capabilities of being even better than he is. I don’t mean to be killing him all of the time, but I want him to expect even more of himself.’’

Anderson, the 21st pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, has already become more than most ever expected that he would. Even he admits that he’s somewhat shocked by his own progress and ascension to being the leading candidate for the Most Improved award, hence his ``surreal’’ feelings of what has transcribed.

But now Anderson thinks this season is just the start of a long run of success for him. A monstrous raise from the $2.2 million that he’s making this season will come this summer when he hits free agency for the first time, but Anderson instead has his sights set on adding muscle and perfecting a post game in the offseason. And he likes that Van Gundy continues to push him because he is well aware there are still accomplishments to reach for and people to impress.

``I always want somebody to expect the best out of me and that’s what (Van Gundy) is doing. I don’t take it as criticism or anything negative,’’ Anderson said. ``I think that’s great that he does that because I want to be challenged as a player and I don’t want to ever be stagnant. I want to be challenged as good as I can be.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com

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