Ryan Anderson Is The Not-So-Secret Weapon Of The New-Look Pelicans

Over 17 points and six rebounds a game… and nearly 40 percent from three-point range. That’s not your typical power forward stat line. But then again, Ryan Anderson isn’t your typical big man. He puts in threes more than he posts up. His foot speed is quicker than it should be at 6-10 and 240 pounds.

He’s soft. Not really a power forward. Talk when you get some rebounds. Some call that stuff criticism. Anderson calls it noise.

“I think my whole career, whether it’s been in high school, college or the NBA, I feel like I’ve been an underdog guy,” Anderson says. “And that’s fine with me.

“If somebody wants to treat me like an underdog, I’m confident enough to prove to them on the court that I’m different.”

Being different defines him. He’s a stretch four, a forward who can open up the floor with his perimeter shooting, one who thrives on versatility, able to take it inside while just as (if not more) effective from the outside.

In his three years with the Magic, Anderson reaped the benefits of a 4-out, 1-in offense, waiting on the wing with his feet set, ready to catch and shoot, while all of the attention flocked to Dwight Howard in the middle. It was a stand-up shooter’s paradise, as Anderson went from 7.7 points a game in his first season with the team to 16.1 in 2011-12’s shortened season, including a career-high 7.7 boards a contest, earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.

Yet Anderson was hardly praised. Many said he had Dwight and the triple teams that surrounded him to thank for his stats, and that anyone can make open shots.

“At first I got a ton of open shots because of Dwight,” Anderson says. “He did open up the court a lot for me, but I always knew that I could score without a ‘Dwight.’

“It was something I just had to brush off and just play. It’s not something where I’m trying to go in and prove myself. I just want to go in there and play my game, shoot the ball when I’m open.”

Anderson is used to having a chip on his shoulder, even if he never felt the weight. Coming into the league out of Cal, he averaged a Pac-10 best 21.1 points (along with 9.9 rebounds) a night as a sophomore in the 2007-08 season, more than highly-touted eventual first-rounders O.J. Mayo (USC), Kevin Love (UCLA), Russell Westbrook (UCLA) and Brook and Robin Lopez (Stanford). Although Anderson was selected in the first round (No. 21 by the Nets), Mayo was No. 3, Westbrook No. 4, Love No. 5, Brook No. 10 and Robin No. 15. Yet as a rookie, Anderson never felt compelled to make the teams who passed on him pay. He just wanted to play.

“Hearing stats from college, it’s great because I know for a fact, I know that I can compete with the best,” Anderson says. “And that’s all that I need to know, you know?”

He’s not concerned whether anyone else knows it either, even if the rest of the league thought that this season with the Hornets was proving time, since the Magic didn’t match New Orleans’ four-year, $34 million offer last offseason.

Even though there is no more Superman in the middle, Anderson’s stats didn’t disappear. Instead Anderson averaged career-highs.

“I think the key right now is winning. I’m not really looking at my own stats,” he says. “I want to do whatever I can to help the [Hornets]. I always have to pinch myself to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m doing. I don’t deserve any of this stuff. It’s an honor to be doing what I’m doing, and I’m very humbled by that.”

Not being the first guy picked allowed Anderson to keep a level head when AAU teams and prep scouting reports were busy crowning the next seventh grade phenom. As a skinny white kid from El Dorado Hills (Calif.) putting up shot after shot, Anderson knew he would eventually overcome the skeptics and bring something different to the game.

Keep reading to see how Anderson is changing the term “stretch forward”…

But now, maybe he isn’t as different as people made him out to be. The NBA is moving away from the dominant, traditional big man. With players like Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, the All-Star ballot officially replaced “Power Forward” and “Center” with an amalgamation of the two: “Frontcourt” player. In this context, Anderson’s shooting is more of an asset than it is abnormal. Even Lob City’s Blake Griffin is working to expand his range with famed NBA shooting coach Bob Thate.

“The game has very much changed,” Anderson says. “It’s more of a European game. You almost have to be a big guy that can shoot the ball somewhat, or step back and maybe make a midrange shot. That’s what teams are looking for now.”

Though Nowitzki, the 7-0 pioneer stretch four, has played 10 more seasons, earned over 10 All-NBA selections and All-Star appearances, and not to mention holds a ring over Anderson, the two are nearly on equal footing in career three-point percentage: Anderson with 38.4 percent and Nowitzki with 38.1 percent.

With guys like that gravitating along the perimeter, point guards have more space to penetrate into the key. Ask Greivis Vasquez, the former Hornets point guard who had a breakout year averaging 9.4 assists per game, good for third in the league.

“Ryan’s a game-changer, man,” Vasquez says. “As a point guard he makes it easy. Sometimes when I score a lot of points its because the defense doesn’t want to leave him, so I can drive and create for others.”

Anderson’s old floor general, Orlando’s Jameer Nelson, recently broke Orlando’s all-time assist record, as he often found Anderson spotting up on the outside.

“Ryan, and even Rashard Lewis, those guys absolutely spaced the floor for me,” Nelson says. “They’re definitely a credit to the record I’ve broken, or anything I’ve done individually.”

Guarding Anderson is tough for more traditional back to the basket fours, as the threat of his shot makes it difficult for defenders to rotate and help, especially when he shot 61.1 percent from the left side center and 53.8 percent from the left wing on shots ranging between 16-24 ft. this season.

“You have to treat him almost like a small forward,” says David Lee, who often found himself guarding Anderson. “A lot of times it’s something you’re not used to. When your natural instinct when someone is driving is to go and help out in the paint, you gotta remember you’re on a shooter.”

The way Anderson forces his defenders to make these kinds of decisions also occurs in pick-and-roll situations, where teams have to worry just as much about the roller than they do the quick ballhandler, who’s looking for his big man fading for the three instead of rolling to the basket.

“When you come off screen and rolls with him, it’s hard to try to trap me or deny him,” Hornets guard Eric Gordon says. “Teams have to switch on us, a big has to guard a guard at that point. He’s definitely one of the best three-point shooters in this league. You have to respect it.”

Although the Hornets are rebuilding around Anderson and a young core of Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and the newly-acquired Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, head coach Monty Williams encourages Anderson’s development of some lesser-known skills.

“I had no idea he was going to be this kind of player,” Williams says. “The thing I’ve talked to him about is allowing other aspects of his game to help him out. We think he’s better than just a shooter. He can rebound, attack the basket. He fights more on defense than given credit for.”

Will the Hornets make the playoffs next season? That’s a possibility now that they potentially have one of the most exciting backcourts in the NBA. Will Anderson ever average a double-double? Even if he managed to pull off both, he knows the chatter will always follow him.

“There’s always labels and stereotypes in the NBA, and I don’t think they’re ever going to stop,” he says. “I’m not really looking for people to change their minds about me. I’m just going out there and playing the way I know how to play. Not changing anything up.”

Will New Orleans and Anderson make the playoffs this year?

Follow Mirin on Twitter at @mirinfader.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.