Justin Anderson has had plenty of highlights in his basketball career.
After all, he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Maryland as a high school senior, won a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference championships in college at the University of Virginia and was a first-round NBA draft pick who has seen significant action in the NBA playoffs.
But he also has two gold medals, won while representing USA Basketball, and is now helping the U.S. in its attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games Paris 2024. It's those experiences playing for his country that stand out.
“I think it's the highlight because this is something that's so much bigger than just college basketball, this is so much bigger than the NBA,” said Anderson, who has played mostly in the G League this season. “This is playing for your country, this is being able to go and represent your country in a way that only a few hands are likely to do in any sport, soccer, basketball, whatever. This is the top of the top.”
As a teenager, Anderson won gold medals with USA Basketball teams at the 2009 FIBA U16 Americas Championship and the 2010 FIBA U17 World Championship. He's currently playing for the USA in a two-game series against Puerto Rico that is the first of three qualification windows that make up the AmeriCup Qualifying. Game 1 against Puerto Rico was Thursday in San Juan, a game he scored 11 points in as the USA won 83-70, while the second game is Sunday (Feb. 23) in Washington, D.C. (for ticket information visit USAB.com/ACQ)
The U.S. will also play two games each against Mexico and the Bahamas in November and February 2021 as part of group play in the AmeriCup Qualifiers.
Having another opportunity to play with USA Basketball is a high point in what has been a challenging season for the 26-year-old Anderson. The 6-foot-6 swingman was cut in training camp by the Washington Wizards. He eventually landed a G League contract with the Raptors 905, who then traded him to the Long Island Nets in January. He did have a brief stint back in the NBA on a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets in January.
This came after he played the last three seasons exclusively in the NBA, with the Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks. Anderson was drafted 21st overall by the Mavs in 2015. He said he bypassed chances to play overseas as he continues to pursue the NBA dream.
“It's been a whirlwind,” said Anderson, who is averaging 5.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in 13.1 minutes over 219 NBA games. “I mean, it's been shown of so many emotions with the lows of sitting at home and watching your friends play and watching guys compete when it's the season and you're not able to do it, you have to sit at home and you have to go work out twice a day. And you're just like, ‘Man, why am I still doing summer workouts? I belong out there.’”
On the AmeriCup team, Anderson has the most NBA experience, and his various stints with USA Basketball — including last summer as a member of the USA Select Team that scrimmaged the Men's National Team in preparation for the FIBA World Cup — has helped those players not familiar with international ball at this level.
“I think (I became a leader with this team because of) the NBA experience, but I've also been thanked with understanding timing, understanding when it's time to lock in and be focused and be ready to play,” Anderson said. “But then also understanding what it takes to have fun. I think that's what helps with being able to have a background of USA Basketball and seeing some of those veterans (I played with before). On the U16 team, I was the youngest one on the team. ... So I didn't have as much as a voice as I do now.”
Anderson is missing a couple of G League games due to his commitment to USA Basketball. When he confirmed his involvement, he talked with Sean Ford, men's national team director for USA Basketball, and Ford reminded Anderson that he was undefeated playing for his country.
“I'll sacrifice 10 times out of 10 to go and play for my country. ... It's an unbelievable experience, an unbelievable opportunity,” Anderson said. “(Ford) told me, 'You know you're 13-0 with USA Basketball so let's look to extend it.' So right now, I'm trying to go and make it 15-0 by the end of this trip. This has been one of my one of my pride and joys in my things that I'll be able to talk about and think of very highly in my playing career.”
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.