James Anderson has officially signed with the Spurs and I'm conflicted about it. I like James. He represented hope after a pretty bad season by the Spurs; the new scorer off the bench or even the new starting small forward was finally here. Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard ended up becoming that for the Spurs, and James became a free agent and received a make-good contract with the Hawks before being cut. Now he's back to try to plug the hole at small forward and, while I'm glad to see him, I have a lot of doubts about his chances of making a positive impact, unless he is willing to change.
We know who Anderson was: a great scorer in college that could never get going offensively on the NBA. His shooting, which was supposed to be one of his biggest strengths, was extremely inconsistent, and he often looked in poor physical shape to slash and finish over athletic defenders. His foot injury might have had a lot to do with it, but Anderson simply could not put up points at the NBA level.
On defense, Anderson again seemed to lack the physical tools to excel. He has decent foot speed for a small forward but is a short 6-6 with only a slightly above average wingspan. There are players with similar bodies that excel at defending even big forwards - DeShawn Stevenson comes to mind - but on the whole, James figures to be average at best on defense.
But perhaps the worst part of Anderson's game in my eyes is that in the NBA he simply couldn't make plays to make up for some of his shortcomings. He's not the type of guy, like Danny Green, that will get you a timely block or a steal to make an impact even when his shot isn't falling. Anderson often tried to force things on offense, instead of focusing his energy elsewhere, but the more James strayed from the system to try to make something happen on his own, the less effective he was.
So he either tried to do too much or would go to the spot on the floor he was supposed to occupy and wait for a kick out. On defense, he tried to stay in front of his man and grab boards if they fell into his hands and that was it. So if Anderson is thinking about playing like that in his new stint, I'll risk getting banned by Cap and call him a poor man's Richard Jefferson and predict his chances of becoming a rotation guy for any team down the road as close to zero.
Not all is lost, though. Just as the Spurs reinvented themselves, so can Anderson. He didn't shine in Summer League, but who knows in what shape he is now. Without a guaranteed contract in sight, James could be focusing both on his body and game more that ever and could be ready to give the team what it needs. Rebounding from the small forward position is key for the Spurs right now, and if Anderson is committed to doing that consistently, he could help the team enormously, even in limited minutes.
On offense, the Spurs are running sets with a lot of motion off the ball, so Anderson could take a page off Danny Green's book and cut decisively to the basket and hope his teammates find him. The steals the Spurs are getting and the turnovers they are causing allow the team to run on occasion and get fast break points. Of course his outside shot would need to start falling for James to have a chance at sticking once Leonard returns, but there's a good chance it does. Great shooters don't simply forget how to shoot, after all, but Anderson needs to learn to contribute even when he doesn't get to score.
The key for Anderson, especially on defense, will be toughness and relentlessness. He will need to bother superior players even if he doesn't shut them down (and he won't). When they score on him, go harder the next possession and try to deny them access to their spots. Show commitment to rebounding, even against bigger guys. Move off the ball and keep doing it even if you don't get the rock the first couple of times you are open. Forget about the silky smooth scorer that won Big12 player of the year and morph into a combination of Stephen Jackson and Danny Green, instead of futilely trying to be a mix between Manu and Neal.
If James Anderson can do that, the rest will come. He'll never be a star, but at some point the shots will start to fall. For that to happen, though, he needs to give teams a reason to keep him on the court and becoming an energy guy is his (and the Spurs') best shot at helping mitigate the absences of Leonard and Jackson. If he plays with a sense of urgency without getting out of control, Anderson will be a good stopgap for the Spurs and could have a good NBA career either in San Antonio or somewhere else. Let's just hope he forgets about the past and is ready for change.