When Justin Anderson discusses the Philadelphia 76ers’ young core and their seemingly unlimited upside, he catches himself talking fast and getting excited. From the outside looking in, it’s easy for fans to get hyped up about Philly’s squad. Anderson gets even more pumped since he’s been in the gym with this group all summer, witnessing firsthand how great they can be if all goes as planned. Behind closed doors, he’s seen this team’s natural talent, intense work ethic, desire to be great and burgeoning chemistry. The days of tanking are over. Now, it’s time for the world to see the 76ers at full strength.
Anderson joined the 76ers last February as part of the trade that sent Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks. Last year, the 23-year-old averaged 8.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 21.6 minutes. Anderson still has untapped potential as he enters his third NBA season, so he fits in nicely with this young core. HoopsHype caught up with Anderson to discuss the buzz surrounding this up-and-coming Sixers team, his offseason improvement, Philadelphia’s ceiling, what he hopes to showcase in his third season, whether Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric can all develop into stars and more.
What’s the vibe around the organization right now? Now that everyone is healthy, how confident and excited is the team entering this season?
Justin Anderson: Last year when I joined Philadelphia midway through the season, one thing that really impressed me about Coach Brown was his positive energy. Even though he knew we weren’t going to make the playoffs, he approached every single game with a positive mindset and that really rubbed off on the players. We stayed positive and we fought. We also played right way; we didn’t turn to iso-ball or stat-padding. Coach made sure we ran our system. That really helped me, personally, as I was getting acclimated and getting a good understanding of what I should work on over the summer so that I could come back and be effective in the system.
He challenged me a lot going into the offseason as far as my weight, my shooting ability and a lot of things in my game. I made sure that by the time I came back, I had checked all of those boxes that he wanted me to check. I put myself in position to have a phenomenal training camp, which a lot of people unfortunately aren’t able to see, but I think that’s going to translate into me being part of the rotation. I think I’ve put myself in position to be a major piece of this puzzle.
As far as the vibe around the team, it’s been phenomenal and it all starts with Joel [Embiid] – with his talent and his ability to be a great teammate. He’s been incredible… I’m sure you saw the stuff [with Hassan Whiteside] – the trash talk and the jokes. But the coolest thing about that was when everyone on the team plane saw what happened, we all had his back. We were like, “Yeah, Jo! Go at him! Don’t back down! We believe you’re the best big man in the league and you have to show that every night!” Us having his back in moments like that is important and cool.
How much has Joel impressed you? From the outside looking in, he’s been impressive in his 31 regular-season games and we’ve seen highlights from practice, but you obviously get to see way more in terms of what he can do. What’s impressed you about Joel and what does he bring – on and off the court?
JA: To be completely honest, he’s very shy. He’s not a very loud, obnoxious person. He’s very confident in his ability as a player and he’s very confident in who he is as a person, but he can be shy. He prides himself on being real, though, which I believe he is. I hang out with him a lot away from the court, either at his house or my house.
The biggest thing that I admire about him is his mentality. His mentality and mindset are just different from most players. I believe he has a chance to be the best player to play this game because of his mentality. His mindset is, “If I want to do something, I’m going to go do it.” You see it on the court. Guys are fouling him or struggling to guard him and he’ll yell, “He can’t guard me! Get him out of the game! He’s going to foul out!” He does everything in his power to put our team in a position to win. And not only does he put up big numbers, he draws so much attention from defenses and he can get other players out of the game [due to foul trouble]. He has the mentality of a champion. Yesterday, he pulled me aside during the Heat game and he said, “We’re going to the playoffs.” And I said, “Yo, take us there!” He’s at the point now where he knows how dominant he is and he knows that nobody can guard him. And I think he’s right, nobody can guard him!
But with that said, everything he does is for the betterment of the team. That’s the coolest part of having him as a friend and having him as a teammate – he’s so unselfish. He always says, “I gotta keep working.” He always says, “I can’t let the city down.” He never talks about how he’s made it. He’s always talking about how much work he still has to do and how much he still needs to improve. That mentality is what separates him and makes him great. I’ve never been around a player like that. I’d say Dirk [Nowitzki] is the closest comparison in terms of being great while also being humble, hungry and doing everything for the betterment of the team.
What specific aspects of your game did you work on this offseason?
JA: The biggest things were working on my body and on my motor. I did a lot of cardio, stretching and lifting. I made sure that in the first part of the summer, I didn’t do much on the court aside from getting shots up. I didn’t work on any ball-handling or coming off pick-and-rolls or things like that; it was just spot-shooting in the gym and I worked my body for about a month straight. I got my weight down to about 228 lbs. from 243 lbs. I got my body right, which was something that Coach Brown really emphasized with me. After I got my body right, I wanted to work on my shot selection so I watched a lot of film and I got to work with my trainer Drew Hanlan. He showed me a lot of ways that I could be more efficient and better at making the most of the minutes I’m getting. I wanted to keep it simple and stay in Philly, so I could get to the know the coaches. I thought it was really important for me to be here because I got to know the staff a lot better and work with them a lot, which was great.
It’s always tough to get traded to a team midseason and learn everything on the fly. Now that you’re going through your first full offseason and training camp with the Sixers, how much more comfortable are you?
JA: It’s very different. I wouldn’t wish [a midseason trade] on anyone, but it’s one of things that happens. I understand it’s a business, and that comes with being in the NBA. You have to be able to adjust and adapt. One of my close friends in Dallas, Dwight Powell, once asked me, “You know why they pay us all of this money?” And I said, “Because we entertain and we’re the best at what we do and…” And he said, “No, you’re wrong. They pay us this money so that when the time comes for us to be traded or when the time comes for us to be out of the NBA, we’re able to up and move ourselves and our family in an instant.” Now that I’ve been part of a trade and moved midseason, Dwight was absolutely right. It’s true. I’ve thought about that a lot when it comes to spending my money. That money is so that your adjustment is easier, so you can buy a house and pay for everything you need to get right and do what you have to do if you have to relocate.
Being traded midseason was tough at first. I was living out of a hotel and all that. Also, the Sixers had played a lot of their home games in the first half of the season, so we had a lot of away games after I got here, which made the transition even tougher. It felt like I got here, dropped my bags off at the hotel and then barely even got to see my hotel room because we were going on these long road trips for, like, a week and a half at a time. It was really tough. But it was such a good learning experience, in so many different ways. Instead of whining or complaining, I used it to grow as a player and take different lessons from it. Now, I feel like I’m prepared for anything that could possibly happen. And entering this season after working out in Philly all summer with the coaches and being here for training camp, I feel much more prepared.
You’re still just 23 years old. How much room for improvement do you still have?
JA: I think there are still things that the league hasn’t seen from me. I think I’m a very, very good shooter. All summer, I’ve been working on my shot. Every day, I was getting a ton of reps up with shooting coach John Townsend. The coaching staff believes in me as a shooter.
I also believe that I’m a Top-10 defender in this league. I have that confidence in myself. I want to take over defensively and have that reputation and get that respect. Like I said before, I want to be a major piece of this puzzle. We all look at teams like Golden State and Cleveland, and those teams need two-way players and glue guys to be that effective. Look at a guy like Andre Iguodala and just how important he is to the Warriors. Coach Brown sent me an article written by Shane Battier called “Elite Glue Guys 101” that was really good. That’s what I want to be. I’ll be that guy who knows where to be on the court at all times. I’ll be that guy who dives for the loose ball. I’ll be that guy who guards whichever player is hot. I’ll be that guy who can space the floor and knock down open threes. I’ll be that guy who pushes the ball and gets someone the easy transition basket.
I recently asked Coach Brown, “What do you need from me?” He told me exactly what he needed and now that’s my focus every day. Going into practice and going into games, I have a list of things that I focus on and I try to check all of those boxes every day. I just want to make sure that I’m doing my job. I’m not out there trying to be something I’m not; I’m going to do what’s asked of me. I’ll play my part and do my job, so that we can succeed as a team.
As far as how much better I can be, I think my work ethic is triple what it was when I was a rookie. I didn’t realize how much harder I could work. For example, today is an off-day and we got in last night at 3 am after a week-long road trip. I just went to get cryotherapy and now I’m about to go get shots up. As a rookie, you just want get back to your house and sleep. And that’s what I did in Dallas. I didn’t know that vets like Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams and JJ Barea were in the gym getting shots up on those off days. Now I know how much work I have to put in, I understand how much I have to learn and I know I have still have so much room to grow. I left college a year early and some people don’t realize that I’m still only 23 years old. But my body feels great and I’m learning so much.
Yesterday, when we were standing at the foul line during the Heat game, James Johnson told me, “You’re a beast, man. Keep doing what you do. I see you working. You’re going to be a beast in this league. You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger.” It meant a lot hearing that from him because he’s a success story. He shows what you can achieve if you keep working hard, staying humble, playing your game and doing everything with heart. When I hear those kinds of things from different players, it makes me realize how much I’ve grown already and just motivates me to keep on working. I’m just going to continue to learn, do everything with the team’s success in mind and try to stay even-keeled. If I do those things, I think the sky is the limit for me.
You mentioned Joel pulling you aside a few nights ago and predicting a playoff berth. Is that a goal that you guys have discussed as a team? It definitely seems realistic, especially with the state of the Eastern Conference.
JA: Yeah, in the first meeting that we had as a team before coming into camp, Coach Brown had the playoff picture and trophy displayed and said, “This is our goal. This is what we want to do. We want to make it to the playoffs.” Everyone was on the same page. We have a number of veterans who have been to the playoffs; I played in the playoffs before in Dallas. I think our guys understand that, in order to get there, every single game matters. I think we have a really good chance of making it if we continue to stay humble, put our best foot forward and let the good days add up. I think we have a good chance. That’s another good thing about having Joel, who’s one of the best players in this league. If he can stay healthy, we’ll do everything we can to help him and put him in position so he can lead us there.
We’ve talked about Joel and how good he can be, but I know fans in Philadelphia are really excited to see what Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons can do this year as well. What have you seen from those guys so far and how much will they help the team this year?
JA: Ben is one of the fastest point guards that I’ve ever played with, which is crazy. For him to be able to turn on the jets at 6-foot-10 and that weight? It’s insane. There are times where I’m telling Coach Brown, “My goodness, I can’t even keep up!” His ability to turn the jets on and his ability to finish with either hand makes him very special and it puts a ton of pressure on the defense. And his passing ability is special. If you’re open, he’ll find you. Whether you have an open three or you’re a big in transition, he’ll get you the ball.
As for Markelle, he’s such a smart guy. You wouldn’t know that he’s a 19-year-old based on the way he’s doing things and expressing himself. On top of being extremely smart, he’s just really, really good. I don’t think most people have even gotten a chance to see how good he is yet. We’ve seen him in practice and it’s not fair. He’s going to get so many easy baskets out in transition. He’s going to get so many easy baskets for Joel and for our shooters. He can get into the paint whenever he wants and then he can either score or find an open man. He’s a special kid. One of the things that we’re trying to focus on this year is holding each other accountable, so I’ve been trying to help him with things like his diet. He already acts like a pro and he’s a great listener. My vets taught me a lot of things, so I want to pass them on to him and he’s been listening to everything we tell him. You can tell he’s going to be a special player because he wants to get better. He wants Coach Brown to coach him. He wants to learn from his teammates. He’s the ultimate teammate and the ultimate talent, and it’s easy to see why he deserved to be the No. 1 pick this year.
From Embiid to Simmons to Fultz to Dario Saric, it’s insane how many potential stars you have. What’s it like looking around the locker room and seeing this many franchise-cornerstone players?
JA: It’s crazy. The coolest thing is that they’re all great guys too. If you’re ever hanging out in our locker room or sitting at our training table or eating a meal with us, you realize that these are all awesome guys. All of these guys have great personalities, they’re funny, they’re humble, they’re outgoing and they’re fun to be around. We all get along and have fun with each other, which makes it even better. We all have each others’ backs too, and I think that’s important. We also have the right pieces around those young players. You look at a guy like Jerryd Bayless, who is a great dude, can really shoot the ball and he knows so many different systems and other teams’ personnel. We have JJ Redick, who is a great veteran leader and he just went 12-14 from three-point range (85.7 percent) during the preseason. Then we have talented glue guys like Amir Johnson and Rob Covington – the guys who make an impact on both ends of the floor and are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. We just have to keep playing for each other and putting ourselves in position for wins, and I think it’s going to be a fun season.
With all the attention that our four young guys get, whenever we get on the plane for a road trip, I always joke, “It’s time to go back on tour! Come on, rock stars! Let’s go put on a show for another city!” We’re going to make the most of each road trip, treat it like we’re on tour, and then protect home. If we do that, we’re going to be just fine.