The word versatility, in basketball terms, calls to mind a varied skill set. LeBron James snaring a defensive rebound, taking the ball coast to coast on the break and snapping a pass across the court to Ray Allen for a corner three; Andre Iguodala sliding side to side to cut off a drive, forcing his man into a wild shot, then filling the lane, catching a lob and slamming it home; Manu Ginobili digging into the post to help Tiago Splitter guard an opposing center, deflecting a pass, then coming down and running pick-and-roll with Tim Duncan, catching the big man on a switch, hitting him with a hesitation dribble, drawing two defenders on the way to the rim and dumping it off to a cutting Kawhi Leonard for a dunk.
Specialists, by definition, generally don’t exhibit much versatility. A specialist does one particular thing, and he does that one thing well enough and often enough to earn a defined place on his team and in the league.
While in Orlando, Ryan Anderson fit neatly into that specialist box. He was the proverbial stretch four (he also happened to be an elite offensive rebounder, but his role in the offense generally consisted of playing off Dwight Howard in the post or the pick-and-roll and shooting threes), the guy they stationed on the perimeter to stretch the defense wire thin by drawing one of the opposing team’s bigs out of the lane. Threes never accounted for less than 44 percent of his total field goal attempts while in Orlando. He attempted between 5.2 and 8.6 threes per 36 minutes and shot between 36.5% and 39.3% in each of his four seasons there.
Most often, Anderson was used solely a spot-up shooter; the outlet man who made teams pay for crashing down into the lane to help on Howard’s dive to the rim in pick-and-rolls, or for doubling him in the post. In each of his last three seasons in Orlando, spot-ups accounted for more than 60 percent of Anderson’s three point attempts, per mySynergySports.
In New Orleans, Anderson is being used a bit differently. He still gets his fair share of spot-up attempts, but he’s also involved in the primary action more often than he was in Orlando. The Hornets use him as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, they run him off screens and they actively seek him out in their secondary break.
One thing the Hornets often do is involve both of their bigs in the primary pick-and-roll action. They love to use the roll-pop combo to confuse defenses and get one of their bigs an open jumper. Anderson has the perfect skill set to play the second roll man in these type of actions. With Robin Lopez or Anthony Davis setting the initial screen and rolling to the rim, and Anderson following it up by setting a screen of his own and popping out to the three point line, Anderson often finds himself with ample space to launch a deep attempt, and most of the time he doesn’t really need any space to get one off.
Anderson and Greivis Vazquez have developed excellent chemistry on these plays. Anderson knows the right spot to float to after setting his screen and Vasquez knows when to deliver the ball. Vasquez has progressed as an outside shooter to the point where teams can no longer feel comfortable going under every screen against him, and whether the big man sinks back or blitzes the ball handler, they should know that leaving Anderson open for even a split second is a losing proposition.
Anderson has also become adept at knowing when to forego a traditional screen altogether and slip his roll to the corner or the wing. If teams try to down side pick-and-rolls or double the ball handler on high screens, Anderson simply abandons the screen and gets to his spot along the perimeter. His lightning-quick release allows him to get rid of the ball before his man can recover.
Anderson is shooting off screens away from the ball more than ever before. Off screen shots make up 9.9% of his total plays this season, three times last season’s number of 3.3%. The Hornets use all kinds of different sets to free him. They’ll run him off brush screens near the top of the key as he heads toward the corner; they’ll use pin-downs to spring him near the elbows; they’ll have one of their guys set a cross screen along the baseline; they’ll go to the occasional screen-for-screener play; you name it. They’ll use the opposite big as the screener or they’ll use a guard. Nothing is off the table.
Maybe the most impressive part of Anderson’s arsenal this year, though, is the transition three. The Hornets don’t just use him as an outlet in transition, they hunt those cross court passes, the drop offs to the trailer, the drag screens on the secondary break. The Hornets rank first in the league in points per play in transition, per Synergy, and Anderson’s expert long range shooting is a huge reason why. His 58 three point attempts in transition lead the league; and his 25 makes rank second behind only Stephen Curry and account for nearly half of New Orleans’ 55 transition three pointers overall.
When running the break, Anderson knows and plays to his strengths. He’s only attempted 4 two point shots in transition this year compared to those 58 threes. When he’s filling his lane, he’s nearly always going to stop outside the arc. If he’s ahead of the play, he sprints to a point along the perimeter he likes (usually the wing) and waits for a dish. If he’s trailing the play, he makes sure to keep proper spacing and come up behind his point guard for a dump off somewhere near the top of the key.
Some players prefer to dribble into their transition threes (usually point guards like Curry, Kyrie Irving or Steve Nash, but guys like Carmelo Anthony have been known to do it a bunch, too), but Anderson is almost strictly a catch-and-shoot type.
The Hornets also find multiple different ways to use him within the traditional spot-up shooter role in their half court offense (and again 42 percent of his three point attempts and 38.7 percent of his makes still come in this fashion). On some plays he’s the outlet man in a pick-and-roll; others he’s spacing the floor off a post-up; and still others he’s stationed at the elbow extended or in the corner waiting for a drive and kick. So even when he’s not directly involved in the play, he’s still there as a release valve to open up the floor for the players who are.