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November 1, 2012It takes a lot for a confident person to see their own limitations and to know the difference between what they can't do and what they can do if they change. And for many players, especially those coming into college, it's that realization that can begin their ascension to something significant.
Virginia first-year forward Justin Anderson had to see himself stumble a bit before he could figure out what he needed to change in order to excel.
He knows that he is on the right path.
The 6-foot-6, 226-pound guard/forward from Montross graduated from Montrose Christian in Maryland, one of the most-storied programs in the country, knowing he could do more amidst people asking if he could. He had gone from prodigy to question mark in the eyes of some talent evaluators, people who wondered aloud just how good he might be.
Rivals at one point had him as a five-star player but the 2012 Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year ended up with just four of those stars. He enrolled at UVa this summer knowing full well that in order to reach his full potential, he had to buy into anything and everything head coach Tony Bennett asked. Following a career where he scored 1,000 points for legendary coach Stu Vetter at Montrose Christian, it's hard to imagine anyone being harder on himself than he was.
"It's been great," Anderson recalled. "I couldn't have made a better choice. Being here with Coach Bennett and his staff, I love it here. I love it."
That he was such a highly-rated recruit meant nothing once he arrived on Grounds. He, like the other rookies on this team, had to get used to a number of things in advance of the team's summer trip to Europe.
Made somewhat easier by having been at Montrose for four years ("The schooling, how the teachers taught their subjects, it definitely carried over to college," he said), the transition to college was exactly what Anderson expected and needed. After all, Bennett can't treat his newcomers with kid gloves.
"It was tough at first," he said of his on-court adjustment. "It was a lot. They threw a lot at us as freshmen, they threw a lot at us early, because of our preparation for the European trip to see how much we could implement out there."
While the team readied for the trip, they did so knowing that once the season came, whether it was George Mason in the November 9 season opener or any other team on UVa's schedule, no one is going to give the Wahoos time to adjust. Anything and everything, Anderson is finding out, will be earned.
"And now that it's been a few weeks now past the European trip, I think we all understand the concepts and what we have to do," he explained. "Now it's time to implement them in game-like situations and I think we've been doing a great job with it.
"I think we have a really good chance at being a really good defensive team this year if we continue to stay low and work hard. I think it's going to be a great year for us."
There's that confidence, the part that says even if he questions himself Anderson's work ethic won't and can't be denied. His physical size and strength, mixed with incredible leaping ability, means he'll be one of the most-athletic players in a UVa jersey in quite some time. (Think Adam Hall skying for dunks in University Hall).
But it started simply and, like most of Bennett's freshmen, it will begin on the defensive end.
Anderson says he's learned the varying degrees of difference between Bennett's calling card, the Pack Line, and the style of defense played both under Vetter and under legendary AAU coach Boo Williams. It has given Anderson different angles to see what being a standout defender really means. He's able to see the contrast of what it will take as to be that kind of player for the Cavaliers. Whereas at other levels it was about throwing different looks from time to time at an opponent and relying on athleticism, at UVa it's about knowing and breathing Bennett's style.
"I would say the Pack Line is probably the most difficult thing for me so far in my playing career," he began. "Coach Bennett emphasizes being continuous, and by continuous I mean continuing to be involved with the play. Montrose was a little bit different, it was a little bit stagnant on the opposite side or off ball. I had a chance to stand up a little bit and rest. Well, in this defense, you can't rest because someone is relying on you to be with your man in the right spot or else you'll get beat back door.
"It's a lot of responsibilities that you have to have even if when you're on the weak side," he added.
Responsibilities are an interesting thing for a young player like Anderson, someone who figures to play a versatile role for Bennett this season, particularly early in the year when the team will be without its lone senior, point guard Jontel Evans, and its best shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon.
"I like to continue telling myself, 'Justin, you've been playing this game now for about 16 years. Just use the things you've learned your whole life. It's just another day playing basketball'," he said. "I'm going to continue to play with passion, with energy, with intensity, the physicality that God blessed me with."
So as he evolves, he also matures and grows. Listening to Anderson, it's hard to believe he has yet to suit up for a real college game. That doesn't mean he hasn't experienced things. Having seen himself change when the hype of recruiting found him, Anderson admits he's had to learn to be more humble.
"If I could do it all over again, sometimes I wish I didn't get the spotlight that I had because that can hurt you a little bit," Anderson began. "Sometimes your head starts to get big and sometimes you may not be able to control it and then you start letting that push over into not working on your game as hard. I got bit by that bug. Some of my younger friends, I have a couple of friends from the area that I work with, I just tell them: 'It's okay to have the stardom. It's okay to be the big name in your area. But stay focused on the things that matter. Stay focused on getting better. Stay focused on being a better person. Stay focused on being a better kid in the classroom.'
"And these are the things that I'm just starting to learn coming into college," he added. "It's a good thing."