“I told my teammates before the overtime – this is where we bond. This is what’s gonna allow us to like each other.”
In his second game with the 905, Justin Anderson led his undermanned team to a gutsy overtime win against Long Island. After the final buzzer Anderson flung the ball in the air, walked towards the crowd and did his best Dwyane Wade impression, screaming some variant of “This is our house!” while gesturing with both fingers pointing to the hardwood. It appeared an outsized reaction for someone so new to a team that, presumably, he didn’t want to be a part of.
“Tired of waiting,” Anderson said when asked about the outburst. “It all made sense. I didn’t get to make the team in Washington. (The reaction was) kind of pent up aggression that I was able to let loose.”
After getting drafted 21st overall in 2015 and spending four seasons in the NBA, Anderson hadn’t planned on playing in the G League. But he immediately bought into the 905’s culture of playing for the moment, and for his teammates. He was following in the footsteps of those who led him to this point. From Tony Bennett at his alma mater of Virginia, to Rick Carlisle in his first two NBA seasons with the Mavs, to vets like Dirk Nowitzki, JJ Barea, and Deron Williams – Anderson has been through a leadership incubator. 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela could see the front-man in Anderson before he had even played a game for him.
“He’s been in our environment for a day or two now and I think he does bring some leadership, which our team needed,” Mahlalela said ahead of Anderson’s 905 debut in late November. “He knows coverages, he knows NBA terminologies, he knows what we’re doing almost before the coaches are saying it and he’s already helping his teammates.”
Anderson also knew the environment he was entering was ideal for a fast track back to the NBA. He took note of Pascal Siakam, Fred Vanvleet, Norman Powell and Nick Nurse excelling in the NBA after stints in the G League.
“The history here is big time,” Anderson said after that first game, where he scored 15 points in a comfortable win over the Windy City Bulls. “From afar, I’ve seen that this organization has something really close-knit, tight with the big organization downtown. This culture is about winning, and you see that with the Raptors and you see that passion with Jama.”
Anderson’s relationship with Mahlalela blossomed quickly. Mahlalela’s reverence for the forward was peak-level after just his fourth game with the team. It was the school day game at Scotiabank Arena. 16,000 students were making the adults plug their collective ears as the 905 forged a furious 4th quarter comeback. Anderson couldn’t miss – his range stretching to anywhere inside half court.
“I like to shoot from deep because guys aren’t gonna pick you up from out there.”
Anderson scored 40, including 18 in the 4th. But he missed the game-tying free throw with under a second left, crumpling to the floor after his shot rimmed out. While Anderson was crushed, Mahlalela was effusive with praise.
“He’s an NBA player, right?” Mahlalela said. “You saw the results of that today in terms of his point production, and some of his leadership and talking, communication, and fight. Really, really good leadership, and in the locker room, tremendous. Helping bring our guys along, and that’s what you need from someone who’s experienced and been in these situations before.”
“You don’t choose to be a role model. You don’t choose to be a leader. Somebody chooses you,” Anderson riffed after the heartbreaking defeat. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I wanna be really close, because (the NBA is) my dream. And if I don’t follow my dreams the young’ins that are comin’ up behind me – they won’t see good leadership. I wanna be able to put myself in a position to follow and shoot for whatever I wanna to do, and that’s to be back in the NBA. But right now I’m here. I’m two feet here.”
As Anderson’s tenure continued, Mahlalela grew more impressed not only by his intangibles, but his strength, physicality and precise shot-contests on defence. Averaging 21.2 points and 6.9 rebounds didn’t hurt either. Within a few games Mahlalela had entrusted Anderson to be the voice of a young team. In the past, some players with NBA experience coming “down” to the G League mid-season had created a contentious environment in Mississauga. But according to Mahlalela, as well as the testimonials of his teammates, Anderson had quickly gained his fellow 905ers’ adoration for playing the right way and following the team mantra of winning the moment. While the 905 struggled to hover around .500 due to injuries and some spotty late-game execution, the season likely would have gone off the rails without the presence of the 6’5 swingman.
What turned out to be Anderson’s last game, and last few minutes with the 905 typified his brief but impactful stint. The Agua Caliente Clippers had come into the Paramount Fine Foods Centre on New Year’s Day and dominated from the opening tip. With just under three minutes left and the game well in hand, 905 point guard Jawun Evans turned it over in the backcourt, and Clippers guard Markel Crawford had a clear path for a layup. But instead of taking the easy two, Crawford waited for a trailing teammate to throw a lob in hopes of a disrespectful alley oop. Anderson, also in the backcourt but slightly behind the play, was not going to let it happen. Eyes wide, he sprinted back and took a hard foul on lob-ee Terance Mann.
“That’s some character right there,” Mahlalela said about the effort. “That’s what we need. I think that sort of leadership and that composure, and that fight and grit – we gotta play with that on our shoulders more. We gotta play with a chip on our shoulders more often and he’s a good example of it. But the other players gotta jump on the bandwagon with him.”
That bandwagon is now about 230 pounds lighter, as Anderson has agreed to a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. The 905 do retain Anderson’s G League rights should things not work out in Brooklyn, but none of his now-former teammates or coaches hope for his return.
“If we can find some way to get a player (a 10-day contract), it’s a good thing for us,” Mahlalela said after December’s G League Showcase, an event where reps from every NBA team descend on Las Vegas to scout every G League team ahead of 10-day contract season. “We all encourage each other to get there. When someone does, we have a big celebration. It’s really great. Because we create that environment, it doesn’t create a selfish, one-on-one scenario. It’s about how do we help each other to get there.”
Anderson’s NBA skills were known quantities coming into Mississauga. That he had been humbled, but not turned bitter, by his failure to stick in the NBA was likely a welcome surprise. Anderson and the Raptors organization hope those qualities continue to thrive at the NBA level.