Juan Anderson: Back and better than ever

Juan Anderson is back with Marquette and playing exceptionally well on the defensive end. (USA Today)

Juan Anderson is back with Marquette and playing incredibly well on the defensive end. (USA Today)

Eight months ago, I was bummed.

I received a text message that sophomore Juan Anderson had decided to transfer from Marquette, citing personal reasons and an opportunity to earn more playing time closer to home. Through two years the Oakland native had battled nagging injuries, junior-college transfers playing ahead of him and the nasty reality that sometimes Marquette “forwards” become interior stopgaps, asked to guard two positions bigger without much help and, in the early going, without much success.

Anderson admitted having to teach himself how to shoot again following shoulder surgery, and he missed offseason workouts while recovering from more nagging shoulder injuries, all while watching Marquette receive commitments from talented forwards Jameel McKay and Deonte Burton in the 2013 class.

So he decided to leave Marquette. I wrote in April that Marquette was going to miss what Anderson could have been, that the 6-foot-7, wiry switchable was showing natural progression all underclassmen undergo that had him trending toward potential stardom, at least a solid role player. Just weeks later Anderson made the decision to return, in part because he hadn’t seen as much interest from Pac-12 programs as he had initially expected, according to a source. But also because, as he told me when he was a freshman who had never seen snow, “Marquette was the place for me.”

And what a fantastic decision Anderson made.

The one-third mark of the season (where Marquette currently stands) is the most fun for finding out which players have progressed, which have remained stagnant and which newcomers stand to contribute early. And through 11 games, Anderson is clearly one player that used his first healthy collegiate offseason to improve, take on a more vocal leadership role and become more comfortable within the rotation.

It’s unfair an inaccurate to compare his current numbers to those from his freshman and sophomore years because of strength of schedule (even though Marquette has faced a couple elite opponents). Still, Anderson’s improvement is impossible to deny, especially on the defensive end, his biggest selling point coming out of Castro Valley High School.

Finally moved out from the low block, Anderson has been able to use his sneaky quickness, basketball smarts and trusted hands both to play the passing lanes and find open spots underneath the glass. Anderson leads Marquette in defensive rating (82.1) by two whole points (Deonte Burton; 84.3) and his 0.7 Defensive Win Shares, per basketball-reference, are tied with Davante Gardner for the team lead.

Anderson has improved his shooting percentages thanks to better looks and a stronger inside game.

Anderson has improved his shooting percentages thanks to better looks and a stronger inside game.

His most impressive numbers have come in his takeaways. Through 11 games (he has started Marquette’s last eight) Anderson has tallied a team-high 18 steals in 195 minutes. Anderson has timed up his chances well, played impressive pressure defense and used his own skill set to his advantage by picking big mens’ pockets, all while giving up some serious pounds at the same time.

In fact, his 5.4 steal percentage — meaning Anderson has recorded steals on 5.4 percent of opponents’ possessions while he’s on the court — is eighth best in the entire country. He’s one spot below Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart, a projected top-5 pick in next year’s NBA draft.

Anderson found himself in sticky situations his first two seasons, being overpowered by taller forwards and centers while he tried to muscle his 210-pound body inside. Results were poor, as he averaged just 2.0 rebounds per game through two seasons and seemed lost among the giants down-low.

This year a noticeably more filled out Anderson is having his way on the glass. He’s averaging 5.1 rebounds per game, third on the team behind OxTule, and his 19.1 defensive rebound percentage (he grabs 19 percent of opponents’ missed shots) is second on the team, just one-tenth of a percentage behind Gardner (19.2) — those two are nine percentage points behind Taylor’s remarkable 28.0 percent, but he’s missed three games so his numbers are skewed and he doesn’t qualify. Anderson’s 11.5 rebounds per-40 minutes are tied with Gardner for the team lead.

Anderson is even hitting the offensive glass hard. Last year Anderson grabbed 26 offensive rebounds in 455 minutes; in 195 minutes this season he has already grabbed 20, and his 11.8 offensive rebound rate is second on the team behind Otule (14.5 percent). And of those 20 offensive rebounds, Anderson has scored 14 points on seven put-back chances, per Synergy. That 2.0 points-per-possesion is far and away the best mark on the team, and while he won’t keep that rate up he’s off to a phenomenal start playing more aggressive.

Those putback numbers lead into his shooting. Again, the non-conference schedule, while a difficult one, isn’t comparable to the grueling Big East slate he faced the last two seasons. But Anderson has improved his shot selection, efficiency and strength inside. He’s shooting 47.1 percent on 4.6 attempts per game, and has made 20 of 36 two-point field goals (55.6 percent), up from his ugly 20-for-55 mark (36.4 percent) from inside the arc a year ago.

Consider, too, that Anderson made 13 of 35 attempts (37.1 percent) and averaged 3.2 points through 11 games last season. So while we can’t compare his current numbers to last years’, his 11-game marks (5.8 points; 47.1 percent shooting) are much better than those in 2012-13.

He may never be Marquette’s star. His 3-point shooting hasn’t seen much improvement (though he did made three 3-pointers against IUPUI) and he’s still in the mix with a talented group of switchables, so a rotation plug may be his peak. But what Anderson has proved through 11 games is that he was right in staying at Marquette, playing for Buzz Williams, the coach who saw his potential and knew it would come to fruition.

Tack on the fact that he’s a fantastic human being (Buzz lingo alert!), has been through hardships early in his career and is now an experienced junior with 39 starts under his belt and it’s apparent that Anderson is now a key piece to what Marquette does every time its team takes the court.

Anderson said at this year’s media day that, despite being homesick in Milwaukee, he came to realize that Marquette was his home, and that the rest of the Golden Eagles were his family. And every family — and team — needs a Juan Anderson. And that’s exactly what they have.

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