After two years away from the Philadelphia 76ers, Justin Anderson is back.
As this year’s wild offseason winds down and NBA training camps begin, the Sixers have signed Anderson on a two-year deal, with partial guarantees in the first year before a non-guaranteed second year. It’s time for him to take on the challenge of proving that he’s developed as a player and he’s worthy of a spot at the end of the team’s roster. And given the fact that he’s received some partial guarantees in his deal, unlike most of the guys the Sixers have signed to fill out their offseason roster, it looks like he has a good shot of making it.
One thing Anderson made very clear when he spoke with reporters via Zoom this Monday is that Philly simply “feels like home.” For one, he’s excited to join Ben Simmons and Embiid again. Anderson described them as one of the best — if not the best — duo in the league. He also feels like he’s in a good place with the Sixers thanks to his time with them from 2017 to 2018 and his communication with both Embiid and Daryl Morey. Anderson explained that Morey has consistently kept in communication with him and shown interest while Morey was still in Houston.
One relationship played the biggest role in Anderson’s return, though: his friendship with Joel Embiid. They spoke and hung out with each other throughout their time in the Orlando bubble, and they’ve been talking through quarantine this year.
“It’s absolutely one of the big reasons of wanting to be here,” Anderson said when talking about his friendship with Embiid. “When I found out, he shot me a text and was like, ‘let’s go.’ I was like, ‘let’s do this, man.’ I mean, there’s not really much to talk about. It’s just like any other really close friend that we all have. I consider him a brother. I’ve known him a long time now, before we both came to the NBA. I think he’s the most dominant big in the NBA, and one of my favorite things to do is push him. He has potential to really go and make some noise this year and he’s hungry, hungrier than ever. So that’s what friends do. For him, he pushes me as well to continue to train, work hard, whatever. That’s my boy. That’s my dog.”
Since leaving the Sixers, Anderson has spent time with the Atlanta Hawks, the Brooklyn Nets (the team he went to the bubble with), and played for the Long Island Nets and Raptors 905 in the NBA G League last season. He sounds nothing but appreciative of the experience he gained there.
“A lot of guys don’t really have to go through that experience [going to the G League] in year five. A lot of guys kind of go through that in their first two or three years in the league. I had an opportunity to go overseas, but I truly felt like I belong. I just think the timing, the way that rosters were built out last year, and people having their teams kind of in order, I kind of fell short of making that last roster spot on a lot of teams. And I felt like — and my agent felt like — we were so close that, for me, I think I needed to go and play in the G League to prove a few things. To prove that I could be part of a system, no matter where it was. I wanted to show that, you know, I’m a great teammate, a great leader, whatever I need to do. Being able to show up and do that, whether it’s guarding the best player or passing, facilitating, doing the little things, I felt like if I put two feet into being in the G League and showing I can play at a high level there, I can prove my worth because of my time in the league and my knowledge of the game.”
Anderson added that going to the G League was a humbling experience for him. From being the lowest paid player on the team, to going from flying private to flying commercial, to taking long bus trips to reach different cities.
“Those things just kind of allow you and force you to grow in different ways that you’ve never really known before. So being able to be here now, it’s a different kind of taking advantage of the opportunity. It’s more about the work that I’ve put in and trusting the work that I’ve put in to try and be a small piece of a major puzzle.”
Anderson’s time with the Long Island Nets helped change his mindset on the court as well.
“It was also scaling back and taking a step back and being coached and not trying to be a know-it-all or whatever the case may be,” he explained. “You know, talking to my agent, sometimes because of my passion and what I’ve shown earlier in my career and my charisma and being upbeat, sometimes it can push the limit. So once I got to Long Island’s G League team, a lot of credit goes to Matt Riccardi (GM of the Long Island Nets), who sat me down right away and told me straight up what the league [NBA] says about me, what the rap is about me, and how we’re gonna fix it and how we’re gonna change it.
“And to this day, he [Riccardi] still shoots me checking-in texts and he was extremely happy with what I did to help that Long Island team. And that just gives you confidence to continue to pursue and keep going, because I know I belong. It’s just shaping the jagged edges, I guess you could say, and I think I’ve done a great job with that.”
Anderson was able to continue training effectively during quarantine this year, too. He was based in Atlanta and had a few trainers nearby that worked with him, and had a facility he could use for strength and conditioning training. As Anderson noted himself, not all players had such resources at their disposal during the time off.
Anderson wants to hang his hat on defense for the Sixers, and knows that he’ll need to space the floor and shoot effectively. He believes the extra playing time he had in the G League (where he averaged 20.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, and shot 35.3 percent from three on 7.7 attempts in his 33.6 minutes per game) has helped him. Despite a strong spell of play in the G League, though, Anderson’s shooting is still a concern. On 486 total three-point attempts (2.2 per game) through his NBA career, he’s shooting just 29.6 percent. If he makes the Sixers’ roster, upping his three-point percentage is one of the key improvements he’ll have to make if he wants to earn minutes.
Now, Anderson has the challenge of competing for that final roster spot and proving that he can continue shaping those “jagged edges” in his game. Again, the partial guarantees in his contract could be an indicator that he’ll make it.
It won’t be easy for Anderson to establish another role in the NBA, but he’s eager to take on the challenge with a new level of experience and perspective. And he’s excited to rejoin the Sixers and his good friend Joel Embiid while he’s at it.