On opening night of the 2016-17 NBA season, Virginia basketball fans on social media were in delirium. At around 7:45 p.m. in Indiana, Justin Anderson (Col ’16) soared for a one-handed, put-back dunk that had his Dallas Mavericks teammates jumping off the bench in jubilation. A few minutes later in Boston, Joe Harris (Col ’14) received a pass in the corner from Brooklyn Nets teammate Jeremy Lin and drilled a three-pointer. In Milwaukee, Malcolm Brogdon (Col ’15, Batten ’16) was feeding Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo for a finger roll.
The collective display was a nod to the success that the UVA men’s team has enjoyed under Coach Tony Bennett, who had recruited all three.
“I love it,” Bennett says, when asked about the trio’s professional prosperity. “I can’t tell you how thankful I am. Whenever I get a chance I’ll try and watch them or look at the box score. It’s really great to see those guys reaching that level and seeing how much [playing] time they’re getting.”
In early February, Mike Tobey (Col ’16) got called up to the NBA by the Charlotte Hornets after an impressive stint in the Developmental League. Including Mike Scott (Col ’11), formerly of the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns—who played for Bennett but was recruited by former coach Dave Leitao—UVA had five alumni on NBA rosters, marking the most representation since the 2000–01 season when Cory Alexander (Col ’95), John Crotty (Col ’91), Olden Polynice (Col ’87), Jamal Robinson (Col ’97) and Bryant Stith (Col ’92) played in the league.
Bennett believes buying into the team concept while at Virginia has led to his former players’ success as pros. “The better your team does, boy, that’s what draws the attention from the NBA people,” he says.
Justin Anderson considered playing under fellow Wahoo Rick Carlisle (Col ’84) a blessing. In September, he and his Dallas Mavericks coach returned to Charlottesville together for All-Sports Reunion weekend. “Being able to do cool stuff like that with your head coach is pretty unique,” Anderson said in a December interview. “There’s a mutual love that we both have for one another.”
Nonetheless, in late February, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban traded Anderson to the Philadelphia 76ers. “Pro sports is crazy!” Anderson tweeted late on the night before the trade was announced.
Anderson had played fairly well. In the offseason, he drew praise from Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki. “I think Justin has been really, really good and one of our best players in camp,” Nowitzki told reporters in October. “He’s been shooting the three, been aggressive, he can drive, obviously he can finish above the rim. I think he took a huge step this summer.”
The challenge for Anderson has been consistency, particularly with his 3-point shooting. In 51 games for the Mavericks this season, he shot 30 percent from behind the arc, averaging 6.5 points and 2.9 rebounds.
Anderson should get more consistent playing time with the 76ers, one of the league’s youngest teams. Anderson, whose contract option for next season had already been picked up, will have benefitted from his time with Carlisle, Nowitzki and the other veterans as he continues his NBA career.
After a foot injury led to his being traded by Cleveland and waived by Orlando last season, some people had written off “Joey Hoops” as an NBA player. Not so fast. Healthy and playing for the Brooklyn Nets, Harris—the linchpin of Bennett’s first recruiting class in 2010—is having the best year of his three-year pro career. Through the first two-plus months of the season, Harris made more three-pointers (51) than he had in his first two seasons combined (32). Harris has been one of the bright spots for a rebuilding Nets team.
“It feels great,” Harris says. “You know, the NBA is a very tough business to be in, and it’s not easy to figure out. A lot of guys in my draft class aren’t in the NBA anymore, and it’s only been three years. So for me to be able to have found a spot is definitely reassuring. It’s a big confidence-booster.”
What’s been the biggest difference this season? “Honestly, it all just lies in the fact that I’m playing a lot more minutes than I ever did,” Harris says. “I didn’t play a whole lot my first couple years.”
Having grown up in the small town of Chelan, Washington, Harris says living in Brooklyn has been a blast. During the holidays, his family visited and they went to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. “I love living here,” says Harris, who will wait to see if the Nets pick up his contract at the end of the season. “It’s a really good spot. I hope to be in Brooklyn for a while.”
Brogdon has made the many teams who passed on him in last June’s NBA Draft—he slipped to the second round—look foolish, since he established himself as one of the top rookies. The Atlanta native gave Wahoo Nation an early Christmas present in December when he dunked on former Duke star Kyrie Irving, then, later in the game, threw down a reverse slam on LeBron James. “I could tell it was LeBron chasing me and knew I had to go hard to the rim,” Brogdon recalls. “I wasn’t going to try and lay it up against him. I knew I had to dunk it.” Playing against “The King” and many of his boyhood idols was surreal at first, “but if you look at it as surreal all the time, you’re not going to rise to the occasion,” Brogdon says. “You have to think of yourself as equal; you have to think you’re better than a lot of guys. I go onto the court every night with confidence and just play the game.”
Brogdon became the first member of the 2016-17 rookie class to record a triple-double, notching 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in a New Year’s Eve win over the Chicago Bulls. In January, he was selected to the U.S. team for the Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. “Wouldn’t it be something if he won Rookie of the Year?” asked a giddy Bennett during his weekly radio show, referring to the award that is handed out in May.
The cherry on top of Brogdon’s year came when Virginia announced that he would be the eighth player to have his number retired, joining Cavalier legends Jeff Lamp (Col ’81), Barry Parkhill (Educ ’73), Ralph Sampson (Col ’83), Sean Singletary (Col ’08), Wally Walker (Col ’76), Buzzy Wilkinson (Col ’55) and Bryant Stith (Col ’92). “I am humbled to join the exceptional players and men whose numbers have been retired,” Brogdon wrote in an open letter. “These men are inspirations to me and represent the best of UVA basketball.”