This would be Kyle Anderson's senior year at UCLA had he not declared for the draft last summer. In his second season with the Spurs, the 22-year-old has already gone from Austin fixture to Summer League standout, to rotation player on a historically great team. It's progress that fans in most situations would be happy with -- even from a first-round-pick that appeared to have been engineered in an AT&T Center lab:
Yet the buzz around the player nicknamed Slow Mo hasn't been overwhelming among the Spurs faithful. Part of that might be the more singular focus on a sixth title, and part of it might be the lack of a banner game for him to hang his hat on, as his counting stats (4.3 points and 2.7 boards a game) keep him firmly under the radar.
Now with Anderson's role this postseason run still undefined, it's easy to wonder about the kind of role he will play, not only now but in the years to come.
Let's go back to last year, when Anderson was regularly making the trip to Austin to get as many reps against D-League competition as possible. His numbers were all one could ask for from a guy who hadn't been much of a scorer in college, but he saw just a handful more minutes as a San Antonio Spur than Austin Daye. The greater value in his rookie season likely came under the tutelage of assistant coaches Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier, learning how to play NBA defense and tweaking the release on his shot.
Engelland's role appears to show the pattern Anderson's shooting numbers have taken from his college career to now. In his final year at UCLA, his three-point shooting percentage jumped from 21% to 48%, an outrageous leap that suggested more a statistical aberration than a mastering of the jump shot.
Sure enough, that figure dropped back into the 20s when he hit the pros, and it continues to to be a work in progress this year (29%). And if Shot Doctor Chip determined that his release needed to be heavily rethought, it makes sense for the numbers to go up from the inside out. Speeding that release can take time, but just ask Ricky Rubio if it's worth putting in the effort:
And KA (thankfully) appears to be coming around faster than Rubio is -- compare his shooting chart from last season...
to this season.
Anderson's midrange game and improvement at the rim are why he's gone from shooting 35% to 47% from the field. He's become quite adept at getting to his spots off the dribble and shooting over opponents.
But Anderson's offensive game won't likely realize its full potential without a serviceable three-point shot. His physical limitations don't allow him to create shots out of nothing, and his passing is most dangerous when plays break down and he takes advantage of an off-balance defense.
Of course, you could say the same thing about our later-years Boris Diaw, a Spur with whom Anderson shares a decided preference for unselfish play and a slower pace. Like Diaw, Anderson treats the court like a midfielder treats a soccer field, using geometry and misdirection to get the ball to its most threatening spot. And while Diaw uses his build (and butt) to compensate for other limitations, Anderson has his length -- a 7'2'' wing span -- to get over and around defenders.
But maybe comparing Anderson to other players isn't the right way to go about predicting what kind of pro he'll be. Player comparisons are an exceedingly quixotic endeavor at the best of times, and it's even more difficult when you account for the fact that the 6'9'' forward is yet to be utilized to best exploit his skill set. With his size and vision, Slow Mo's a guy who needs the ball in his hands to make his biggest impact on the game. Yet, at 15.0, his usage rate remains one of the lowest on the team, just above catch-and-shooter Danny Green and well below big man David West.
Part of that is due to his emphasis on staying within the offense -- fitting in and not fitting out, as LeBron James might find himself tweeting. Anderson said the following after his excellent summer league performance:
"It's nice, but that's not what they're going to ask me to do once the season starts... I'm trying to get my shots in the context of our offense and not force anything. I don't want to pick up any bad habits here."
His offensive moments have come sporadically, often during mismatches or when bringing the ball up himself after pulling down a board -- which he does at one of the highest rates on the team. He may not be exceptionally athletic, but rebounds like the one below have become a common occurrence. Getting this help on the glass from a perimeter player is an asset, as is the vision he displays on the hockey assist afterward.
His defense, meanwhile, has held up as well. He should be fine against most small forwards, thanks to his length and improved footwork, and he's producing turnovers so regularly that he trails only Kawhi and Manu in steals rate. He's not a high riser, but his length and timing mean he can block shots at an appreciable rate for a wing.
Speaking of Manu, no one player will be able to immediately replace everything left behind once the Argentine calls it a career. Bu t the player on the roster most likely to step up and assume the role of bench creator might be Anderson. As with Ginobili, his passing and ball handling allow Pop to be flexible with his backcourt, whether that means filling it out with other playmakers, or shooting/defensive specialists.
While mostly filling in as an interchangeable small forward this season, Anderson has been solid. When he's on the floor as a kind of a stretch four alongside Aldridge, Leonard, Green and Parker, he's even helped comprise the Spurs' seventh best lineup in terms of plus/minus. He has earned Pop's trust as a guy who can play in fourth quarters and consistently make the right plays, even if he isn't yet leaned on as a playmaker. But it looks like that time will come.
For now, we're left with glimpses of what a higher-usage Kyle Anderson would look like. We can try and project that he'll become some amalgamation of Diaw, Nicolas Batum or Paul Pierce, but with a little patience we could be seeing the real thing soon enough.