As the end of Kyle Anderson’s pre-game shootaround routine approaches, the final drill is oddly symbolic of his unique approach to the game. This is an age in an age when seemingly every player and team is focused on the merits of the 3-point shot and exploring how much it can be emphasized. But, rather than sharpening his 3-point stroke, Anderson is a step inside the arc, methodically casting long mid-range jumpers.
Through 287 career NBA games, he’s only attempted 166 3-pointers. Even his shooting mechanics are incongruous. He brings the ball up to his forehead, carries out a slight pause and hoists; the fluidity associated with the game’s purest marksmen is absent. But most importantly, it’s effective. Soon after, he’s caught fire and the ball is ripping through nylon.
Anderson meanders over toward the baseline and cranks his 6-foot-9 frame into a courtside chair, limbs spilling over the edge, his sweat-soaked jersey staining the black canvas behind him. Near the scorers’ table, a small media contingent is huddled around Mike Conley Jr. while most staffers and teammates congregate outside the tunnel, readying for a bus ride back to the team hotel. Save for one Memphis Grizzlies employee, nobody is near Anderson. He is isolated, given time and space to focus on tonight’s game and the ways in which he will approach it.
It is another symbol, of the ways in which his unconventional skill, built on limited NBA-level quickness and traditional athleticism, go unnoticed despite their value.
“He’s offbeat. You watch him play and most guys have rhythm, where they play at that speed and that same thrust level,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “But he plays kind of herky-jerky, offbeat offensively where you think he’s gonna do this and he’s moving this direction. You think he’s gonna burst but he actually slows down and then he speeds up. I think he catches people off guard with that.”
Around 10 or 11 years old — he’s not exactly sure — Anderson was crowned ‘Slow-Mo’ by Pete Edwards, commissioner of iS8, a basketball league in New York populated by many of the area’s top youth players, once including Anderson’s teammate, Joakim Noah, another native of New York City.
Anderson is never hurried. Moves are calculated. He does not speed up or scurry through tasks, both on and off the court. When the ball is in his hands, by design and choice, the tempo resembles that of maple sap trickling down the trunk.
“I like to take my time doing things,” Anderson said, as his laugh faded out, reflecting upon whether or not any of his daily habits are performed quickly. “I don’t know if that’s why I play so methodical on the court but I don’t like being in a rush. Being in a rush, to me, is pointless.”
That approach to the game first made its way to the national stage during high school. Anderson starred at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City, New Jersey, under famed head coach Bobby Hurley, ascending to No. 5 on ESPN’s top 100 his senior year.
After a voyage westward for two seasons at UCLA, which featured a third-team All-American honor as a sophomore, he was selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 30th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. There, he learned how to conduct himself professionally, grapple with adversity and every other platitude woven into the Spurs’ esteemed culture.
During the offseason, Memphis extended a four-year, $37.2 million offer sheet his way, luring Anderson away from The Alamo. Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace deemed Anderson his “main target” in free agency and San Antonio did not match the deal, meaning the gangly swingman would trade in Spurs silver and black for Memphis blue and yellow.
“The numbers were right, [I liked] the role [Memphis] wanted me to play in,” Anderson said. “I’ve competed against this team. It was an organization I could see myself [in]. The fans were great, went against them in the playoffs before.”
In 30 games this season, Anderson is averaging 7.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals on 51.3 percent shooting. Those are not vibrant numbers but it is a well-rounded stat line, representative of the versatile impact he brings each game.
Anchored in the Southwest Division, both Conley (all with the Grizzlies) and Bickerstaff (stints coaching the Rockets and Grizzlies) had a peripheral awareness of Anderson’s evolution and game. Yet his facilitating has taken both by surprise.
“His ability to play make [is a strength,]” Bickerstaff said. “You can put him in pick-and-roll; he can find a roll guy; he can find the guy out [on the] opposite [side] because of his size and his length.”
Conley noted Anderson’s relaxed cadence affords him opportunities to execute reads other guys might not otherwise see, especially when his blend of height and vision are factored into the distributing equation.
“I always saw him as a decent creator but he can really handle the ball like a second point guard,” Conley said. “That ability is something that a lot of us didn’t know he had.”
The fit in Memphis made sense on both sides of the ball for Anderson. Offensively, he embodies the team’s deliberate style — it’s never ranked higher than 26th in pace since 2012-13.
He has mastered the art of control, seemingly always capable of finding his preferred zones on the floor. Around the rim, his arms and body morph to clay, twisting, turning and contorting to finish buckets at thorny angles. He shot 67.4 percent in the restricted a season ago and is hovering near that mark again at 64.1 percent this year.
“[For] a lot of guys, that’s part of the evolution of the game: realizing where you can be effective at,” Conley said. “He knows exactly where he’s effective at and he knows how to get there. It’s tough to guard somebody who knows if they get to a certain spot on the floor, you can’t guard them.”
However, offense is not the primary reason the Grizzlies reached seven consecutive postseasons and won four playoff series from 2010-11 to 2016-17. They forced teams into submission with an unrelenting, technically sound defense that never provided an ounce of daylight for the opposition. Signing Anderson squeezed another cog into the terrifying mechanism, which currently sits sixth in defensive rating (105.0).
He harnesses a 7-foot-3 wingspan to flummox ball-handlers, malleable enough to defend point guards through power forwards. Last season, he finished 16th in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (plus-3.20) and this year, he’s 23rd (plus-2.28). Analytics do not convey his technique or specific tendencies, though.
“He’s got a mix of intelligence and size. At 6-foot-9, with range, and understanding angles, he’s able to beat you to spots. He does a really good job of just keeping you in front,” Bickerstaff said. “A lot of times, guys open up, so now they’ve got driving lanes and angles but he plays the geometry of defense as well as anybody and cuts you off at different angles. So now, you’re taking shots over the top of him and not getting past him.
“When you see him and you take away what may not be speed or lateral quickness, he surpasses all that with his anticipation and his ability to beat guys to spots.”
Tracking Anderson’s basketball journey leaves one’s eyes bouncing across the map from New Jersey to Los Angeles to San Antonio to Memphis — all in just seven years. Now, his bags are unpacked, playing out the inaugural campaign of a four-year contract.
At 16-15, the Grizzlies are stationed a half-game outside of the playoff picture but it’s a vast improvement from the 22-60 slog of last season. Grit ‘n’ Grind has returned with meticulous offense and galling defensive battles. There is a certain aura to Anderson, perfectly exuding that mantra.
“I grew up playing on the New Jersey playgrounds,” Anderson said. “It just makes you tougher, just having that grit about your game is key.”