Denton: Anderson Named Kia Most Improved Player

By John Denton
May 4, 2012

ORLANDO – The full magnitude of Ryan Anderson’s improvement as a player this season didn’t fully sink in to him until the past three games when the Indiana Pacers made it a priority to shut down the sweet-shooting power forward.

To have so much defensive focus on a player formerly off the radar of opposing game plans, it was both the ultimate compliment to Anderson and also the bane of his existence.

Anderson has certainly deserved the extra defensive attention what with him becoming just the second power forward in NBA history to lead the league in 3-point makes (166) this season. His all-around growth – he boosted his scoring from 10.6 points to 16.1 points, rebounding from 5.5 to 7.7 boards and was the only player in the NBA in the top 10 in 3-point shooting and offensive rebounding – helped him nab the NBA’s prestigious Kia Most Improved Player award on Friday.

``I never thought I’d win an award like this. It’s a pretty cool honor and to hear the names that have won this award before and be a part of that list is pretty special,’’ Anderson said. ``You come into the NBA and you plan on just playing, and then when you win an award like this it’s a pretty special thing.’’

The 23-year-old Anderson even marvels himself at how far he’s come in basically two years time. Early last season, he was basically out of the rotation for the Magic, going through a stretch of 16 games where he got little or no playing time and then another nine games when he was out with an injured foot.

Now, fast forward to this season when Anderson feasted on foes and became the NBA’s most lethal 3-point shooter. He burned defenses for at least seven 3-pointers in a game four times and made at least five in a game 11 times. He joined former Magic standout Rashard Lewis (in 2009) as the only power forward in league history to lead the NBA in 3-point makes. That long-range shooting allowed him to score at least 20 points 11 times, including a career-best 30 points at New York in January.

Anderson, an aw-shucks type who never takes himself too seriously, is even shocked at how far he’s come as a player since early last season.

``It’s a weird thing to me because of my history in past years,’’ said Anderson, who is in his third season with the Magic. ``It’s been so rocky and up and down with me, as late as last year during a stretch when I wasn’t playing. If you would have told me during that stretch last year when I wasn’t playing that I’d have this great opportunity this year and then become the Most Improved Player, I’d have laughed in your face.’’

Winning individual awards is no laughing matter for the Magic. Over the past 14 seasons, the Magic have hauled in 21 coach, player and executive individual awards.

Anderson is the fifth Magic player to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, speaking to the organization’s dedication to developing its young players. Scott Skiles (1990-91), Darrell Armstrong (1998-99), Tracy McGrady (2000-01) and Hedo Turkoglu (2007-08) won the Most Improved award previously.

Magic President of Operations/GM Otis Smith saw something special in Anderson all the way back in 2009, demanding that the power forward be included in a trade with the New Jersey Nets that was centered around Vince Carter. As it turns out, Carter was the throw-in and Anderson was the hidden gem for the Magic.

Said Smith: ``We wouldn’t have done the deal if Ryan wouldn’t have been included. That’s how much we liked him and wanted him.’’

During this past regular season, Anderson burned the Pacers for 11 3-pointers in four games. He averaged 14.7 points in those regular-season games while shooting 46.1 percent from the floor and 55 percent from the 3-point line.

With that in mind, the Pacers have made it a point to keep Anderson from getting into a rhythm from beyond the 3-point stripe. Indiana power forward David West has rarely left Anderson’s side, purposely ``hugging’’ him on the pick-and-pop plays where he got free for so many 3-pointers during the regular season. And even when Anderson has shaken free, the Pacers have run defenders at him to make him dribble or change his shot.

Because of the increased scrutiny, Anderson has averaged just 7.7 points while shooting seven of 22 from the floor and five of 15 from 3-point range through the first three games of the playoffs. Not being able to shake free for shots has understandably been difficult for Anderson to stomach as the Magic have fallen behind 2-1 in the series.

``It is a compliment. But it’s just hard playing a certain way all year long and then have a team completely take you out of how you are used to playing,’’ Anderson said. ``They’ve been prepared for us and knew how we played as a group. They’ve done a lot of things to figure out what we’re trying to do and that’s just part of the game. It’s tough on me, but it’s a huge compliment, too.’’

The rough play in the playoffs has simply inspired Anderson to go back to work on his game this summer so that he can make more improvements. He will be a restricted free agent this summer and could be in line for a massive, eight-figure contract, but he said his offseason focus will be more on adding strength and bulk to his 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame and improving his low-post game.

``This is just going to make me a better player for the future. This is just going to make me expand my game,’’ Anderson vowed. ``I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m not 100 percent confident in the post. I’m excited because I know I can be so much better and there are so many different elements in my game where I can improve.’’

A deeply religious man who is also extremely close to his family, Anderson will have his mother, Sue, at Friday’s ceremony that will honor him as the league’s most improved player. Rarely does he miss a chapel session before games and he feels that keeping his faith helped him get through the hard times in his career and get to a place now where every coach game plans to try and stop him.

``My faith was also a huge part of helping me grow through all of this,’’ said Anderson, often the object of Magic coach Stan Van Gundy’s ire during games. ``Just thinking about last year and if it wasn’t for my faith I wouldn’t have had the mental focus and this drive that I have now. I know now that I’m not in control of everything and I just have to go out and keep working and improving.’’

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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