Swingman James Anderson represents all that’s special about the defending champs as a one-time elite scorer who has embraced a much-different supporting role during his four seasons with Anadolu Efes Istanbul.
James Anderson, Efes: 'Whatever it takes for me to impact the team'
Those who are first seeing Anderson play today may not know what a talented scorer he can be. The 33-year-old small forward led his conference in scoring in college, was a double-digit scorer during one of his seasons in the NBA and was among the top 10 scorers in the EuroLeague in his first season in the competition, in 2014-15 with Zalgiris Kaunas.
“In the past, I would go into the game thinking about how to score, I'm pretty sure the same way that Shane [Larkin] and Vasa [Micic], knowing that they’re going in trying to figure out how to beat the trap or where they're going to get their shots or where they're going to come from,” Anderson explained. “Now I feel like my approach is just trying to affect the game defensively and look to score when I have a chance and when I can be aggressive and it’s definitely a different approach.”
Members of the Efes coaching staff and his teammates credit Anderson for being a team-first guy on and off the court. What makes the transition in role even more impressive is that Anderson himself didn’t see it coming.
“I was still in the mindset of scoring the ball and just being aggressive in that manner,” Anderson said of his thinking when he signed with Efes in the summer of 2018. “Coming here with so many guys made it impossible to play the same way that I was playing. So I just took the time to help develop the role of whatever it takes for me to impact the team…
“We mostly call on our guards to score and they get most of the balls, so I had to find another way to impact the game. Once I'm called on to score and I see the opportunity, that's when I try and take the opportunity. But I really don't try to force and go after a bucket like I normally used to do. So I just started trying to figure out other ways to impact the game and be on the court.”
How dramatic was the change in Anderson’s game? At his peak as a scorer, he was among the best in the game. Anderson scored a career-high 37 points in college at Oklahoma St. University, notched 36 in the NBA with Philadelphia and netted 27 in his first EuroLeague season with Zalgiris. This season, Anderson had seven games in which he attempted just 1 field goal and five in which he did not attempt any. In Game 3 of the playoffs against AX Armani Exchange Milan, Anderson played 24:15 and impacted the game through defense with 3 steals, but did not attempt a single field goal!
Of course, that scoring touch does come in handy when needed. Anderson scored 11 points in 7 minutes off the bench in Round 27 to help his team to a rout of Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv and with Micic sidelined in the regular-season finale, Anderson stepped up with 12 points on excellent shooting. He set a career-best in three-point shooting accuracy this season by making 47.6% of his attempts from deep.
“I feel like there's certain times where I feel like I can be aggressive. There’s times where after the game I go back and look at the game where I take on myself because I feel like I wasn't aggressive enough. That's usually most of the cases, not being aggressive enough,” Anderson explained before adding that his teammates often want him to shoot more. “They are definitely encouraging me and telling me to be more aggressive. It's mostly on me to know when and not to wait on it to come and go out and actually search for a shot or be aggressive attacking the basket.”
Anderson deflects credit for his role in making Efes one of the league’s top teams over his tenure there. However, he is quick to praise his teammates, coaches and club management.
“We have a great group of high-character guys who, like I said, even from the top with Shane and Vasa, no one has an ego. We all hold each other accountable to play our role and do what we have to do to win,” Anderson said. “It can literally be anybody who beats you from one all the way through. We have such an amazing group of guys who do so many different things and everybody on the team can shoot the ball and can score in bunches. It's just a matter of how the game is played and whose night it is.
“[Coach Ataman] and the GM get a lot of credit. It's a great group of guys. We have no issues off the court. Everyone gets along. Everybody puts their egos to the side. So anytime you can do that and build the chemistry that we have, it's definitely a recipe to make it to the championship.”
There is one more piece to the puzzle that Anderson said Efes needs to complete their historic run by winning back-to-back EuroLeague championships: the support of the Efes fans at the Final Four in Belgrade.
“Last year we had no fans and there was a different atmosphere and this year it will be different. We have a different team to face against so it'll be different approach. We got to put last year in the past and try to get this one this year,” he said. “We definitely need all our fans to come out and support us because Olympiacos will have a lot of fans.”