Giving thanks for one of the NBA’s best teammates

by Jim Eichenhofer

There are numbers for everything in today’s NBA. How accurate is a player on catch-and-shoot attempts from the left wing? We’ve got that stat. How many points per possession does a player generate on pick-and-rolls during the second game of back-to-backs? You can look it up. What’s the average PER for opposing players against a specific defender? A few clicks away.

Yet the game will always be played by human beings. Living, breathing people who share many of the same traits and frailties as everyone else. So how do you measure the impact of being a good teammate? How valuable to a team is a player who gets along with everyone and makes friends quickly, who tries to be unselfish – not only on the court, but perhaps just as importantly during a six-month, 82-game season, away from it? Good luck trying to figure out how to accurately gauge that.

For one of the New Orleans Pelicans’ players, however, there was a tangible piece of news during the 2015 offseason that may have meant as much as any award, trophy or honor that brings greater fanfare. It probably didn’t even merit a mention on the sports ticker along the bottom of your TV screen, but on Aug. 19, the NBA announced that San Antonio’s Tim Duncan had won the Twyman-Stokes Award for 2014-15, given annually to the player who is the “best teammate based on selfless play, on- and off-court leadership as a mentor and role model to other NBA players, and commitment and dedication to team.”

Not far down the list, Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson finished in fourth place among the league’s 400-plus players, just behind Duncan, Memphis veteran Vince Carter and now-retired Elton Brand of Atlanta. In just its third year of existence, the Twyman-Stokes Award received so little media attention that Anderson himself did not even know he was a candidate until days after the NBA announced Duncan had won it. The top 12 was comprised of several names that may be more familiar to the average basketball fan than Anderson’s, such as Chicago’s Pau Gasol and 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. That made his inclusion even more gratifying to the 27-year-old.

“It’s a cool thing. To be in that kind of company, it was a group of either (longtime NBA) veteran guys, or superstars like Tim Duncan, who won it,” Anderson said of being recognized. “To be acknowledged for anything in that kind of company is awesome, but to get that respect from other teams and have other teams notice that kind of stuff is great. Especially me – because in my mind, if I’m on a list of candidates like them, I feel like I might be looked over. For people to say ‘he is a great teammate and a positive guy’ is something I definitely appreciate.”

‘A good person on and off the court’

Nearly 300 NBA players participated in voting for the Twyman-Stokes Award, meaning a chunk of voters have never played with Anderson in the NBA, yet partly by word of mouth, there is immense league-wide respect for the Sacramento area native. It’s likely many of those complimentary words and recommendations came from the men who work with him every day, because Anderson seems universally revered by Pelicans players.

“He’s just a good guy,” forward Luke Babbitt said. “He’s positive, very social, very vocal. He’s an encourager and a good teammate. He’s there for you if you need it. He’s got a lot of wisdom and has been around the league, in New Jersey, Orlando and here. He was on a really good team in Orlando and brings that experience here.”

“He’s a good guy,” echoed center Alexis Ajinca. “Always smiling, always friendly, goofing around. He’s always willing to take you to dinner, to go get something to eat, go to a movie theater. He’s always trying to encourage you, even when he’s hurt. That makes him a good teammate. And he has a great relationship with all the teammates he used to play with.”

Center Omer Asik: “He’s always so friendly. He’s always helpful, on the court and off the court. He’s always positive about everything.”

Guard Tyreke Evans: “He gets along with everybody. He’s funny. He does the little things and wants to win as much as possible. That’s all you can ask for. He’s a good person on and off the court.”

Anderson has experienced more than his share of well-documented adversity during his four seasons in New Orleans, from personal tragedy to a frightening season-ending injury in 2013-14, but the Pelicans describe him as a man who’s always been more concerned about how others are doing, instead of being focused on himself.

“There aren’t many times I see Ryan pouting or down, or he doesn’t have a smile on his face,” forward Quincy Pondexter said. “No matter what circumstances he’s gone through on or off the court, he’s still a light in a lot of people’s eyes, every single day he comes to work. He’s a great guy. I look forward to being his teammate for a long time.”

It probably helps that Anderson often seems oblivious about the idea of conducting himself in similar fashion to how a professional athlete is “supposed” to act. He generally treats media interviews not as a nuisance or a chore, but as an aspect of the job to have fun with, often displaying the outlook of someone who realizes a conversation about a game doesn’t need to be taken overly seriously. Around his teammates, he’s known for lightening the mood, even if that means making fun of himself or acting in ways that might make him seem like a bit of “a goofball” (his words).

“He’s just so selfless,” forward Dante Cunningham said. “He would literally do anything for you at any time. He honestly doesn’t care if it’s not socially OK. If it’s something that means something to you or to help you, he’s the first one to do it. If it’s a team activity, he’s always the first one to show up and be a good guy. He’s always Ryan, always himself. He never lets anything outside interfere with how he is day to day.”

Breaking the mold

Upon hearing Cunningham’s description of him, Anderson nods, appreciative of his teammate’s compliment. As Anderson explains his outlook on the effect he’d like to make on other people, the University of California product notes that throughout his NBA career, he’s attempted to improve the perception some people have of players in his position.

“The one thing I’ve wanted to do since coming into this league is be different and sort of change the persona of what people might think an NBA basketball player is like – because the reputation isn’t great for some guys,” the eighth-year pro said. “I realize that I have plenty of flaws and I mess up a lot. I complain sometimes. I get angry, frustrated, depressed. But I want to be a character guy as much as I can be. And I do think (the perception of athletes) is definitely turning around.”

It sounds trite, like something that should be printed on a T-shirt, but Anderson also believes it’s vital for him to just be himself, especially in an environment where being “cool” is often placed at the top of the list of what fans, media and even other players think is important.

“I wasn’t really raised in an environment where I was praised from age 10 on,” Anderson said, seemingly alluding to a culture that sometimes anoints star basketball players even in their pre-teen years. “I think that helps. It was my upbringing. My parents raised me to work for what I have and be appreciative and gracious. It’s also my faith (religious beliefs), for sure. The NBA embodies what the world tells you is important: Things like traveling, money, beautiful girls, cars, houses. All of that stuff is what people think is important. But if I’m going to be true to who I want to be with my faith, I’m not supposed to live for that world or those things. Because they’re not going to make me happy, and they’re never going to satisfy me. Yeah, they’ll make you happy for about a month, but then I’m going to move on to the next thing.”

Anderson remembers being an NBA rookie in New Jersey in 2008-09 and trying to navigate an environment that he’d imagined would be different from anything he’d experienced growing up in Northern California. It quickly wore him out.

“My whole life I’ve always been a very self-conscious person, even though a lot of people may not know that,” Anderson said, smiling at how surprising that may sound to those familiar with his extroverted personality. “I was always very uncomfortable in basketball settings where I didn’t know anyone. I dreaded (summer basketball) camps. It was something I had to overcome. Then, coming into the league as a rookie, I felt like I had to joke around with (NBA teammates) the way they joke around, say the funny thing at the right time, and always think about exactly what I was supposed to say. And it just got exhausting.

“I realized that it’s a long season – your teammates are going to respect you for the way you handle yourself and the way you play. And anyway, the people I think are the most respected are the ones who are just themselves. I like to think I’m a friendly person and enjoy joking, communicating and talking with people. It’s just the way I am. People that are fake, it’s hard for people to follow them.”

A fitting recognition

Anderson won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2011-12 with Orlando and has received accolades at every level of his hoops career, including winning a state championship in high school and being named a Pac-10 first-team selection at Cal. Those highlights on his resume all are directly tied to achievement on the basketball floor, but his Twyman-Stokes Award mention stood out because in some ways, it has nothing to do with the game.

“I don’t know, maybe some (NBA players) voted for me because it was the first name they saw on the ballot,” Anderson joked in his commonly self-deprecating fashion, alluding to his surname being near the top of alphabetical order. “It’s funny to hear people describe me as a great teammate, because I feel like I have plenty of moments where I’m not. There are times when I say I have to be more attentive to people, more caring. But at the end of the day, just to be on a list like that is great. As the years go on, I’ve played with a ton of guys. A lot of teams we play against, I’ve played with one or two guys. So maybe that could explain it. I like to try to build some kind of personal relationship with each guy, because when you’re with them every day, that’s important.”

Anderson is grateful to know that an aspect of his career that takes place far from the spotlight or TV cameras hasn’t gone entirely undetected. Let’s face it, unlike his 30-point games or prolific three-point shooting for the Pelicans, there won’t be any “good teammate” stats appearing anytime soon in box scores or daily-fantasy competition.

“That honor is a cool reminder that I’m doing something right, that somebody’s noticing, even if there are some days I come in and don’t feel like being happy,” Anderson said of being praised for his contributions as a teammate. “I look at it like, you have a choice every day. I remember when I was going through a lot of stuff (personally), I realized that I can come into practice every day with a certain mentality and be bitter and angry. Or I can step on the court and think of it as a fresh, new day. Not every day I can do that. But that’s the mode I want to come in with every day.”

Ryan Anderson’s top teammates from his previous NBA teams:

Vince Carter

“He was on that list (of best NBA teammates) for a reason. He’s one of the first guys who comes to mind. I don’t think he even views himself the way other people around him do. He can change the mood of an entire gym. His personality is such that you just feel comfortable around him. He took me in as a (New Jersey Nets) rookie, when I didn’t know anybody and felt out of place at 19. I’d sit next to him on the bus or plane and he just made me feel comfortable. I don’t know if it’s because he liked me, or if he just felt bad for me and thought it was the right thing for him to do.”

Jameer Nelson

“He was one of the best guys I’ve been around and always was a great leader. He’s a humble guy and people listen when he speaks up.”

Rashard Lewis

“One of the great guys. Just real positive energy. He doesn’t speak a ton, but when he says something, you know it’s meaningful. He was always in the same mood or mode, just Sweet Lew.”