Let's wind the clock back to 2007. It's an abnormally nice night in March, so a few friends and I decide to blow off school (what else would you do in college?) and head out to watch the Cavs game.
The game is against the Knicks and the Cavs are struggling, down double digits in the third quarter (don't ask me how I remember this, I just do). Surprisingly, the makeshift SF/PF combo of Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, and Donyell Marshall is ineffective and being outplayed by Jared Jeffries, Channing Frye, and Eddie Curry.
Then Anderson Varejao checks in, and Cleveland goes on a run, thanks to a few offensive rebounds and an easy putback he gets.
One of my friends (who wasn't the biggest basketball fan in the world) said, "I really don't like Varejao; he's got to be one of the worst players in the league."
I nearly spit out my drink. "You've got to be kidding," I said. "He's one of the few decent players we have. What could you possibly not like about him?"
"He can't shoot, he's too small...he just doesn't look like a basketball player," he responded. "Plus, I hate the way he's always bouncing around out there. He's got energy, but that doesn't make him a good player."
It took me a minute to comprehend this fallacy. Finally I just shook my head. "No way. Every team needs somebody like him. Any other team in the league would love to have him. And he's only going to get better every year."
Fast forward to today...
Anybody who says Anderson Varejao isn't a good player is either completely biased or just an uneducated observer.
In his six years as a Cavalier, Varejao has transformed from just a high-energy guy off the bench to a reliable jump shooter, an athletic, versatile defender, and one of the best finishers near the hoop in the league...oh, and that often annoying and frustrating energy (for opponents, at least) is still there.
Last offseason he inked a six-year deal potentially worth up to $49 million. Seems like a lot for a role player, especially one who couldn't create his own shot against a folding chair.
Believe it or not though, this article isn't just about pointing out that I was right in my evaluation of Andy three years ago (still, any projection that I correctly assess is cause for celebration for me). Any Cavaliers fan or die-hard NBA buff could probably see that Varejao was going to make an impact in whatever uniform he donned for the rest of his career.
So just where has the Wild Thing's game blossomed? Let's take a gander...
Jump Shot/Offensive Arsenal
Since we're playing the time machine game, let's go back to 2007 again. It's Game Three of the NBA Finals, the Cavs are down 2-0 in the series, and trail 72-70 with under 30 seconds to go.
LeBron gives it up to Varejao at the top of the key with about 15 seconds left. Andy doesn't know whether or not to give it back and awkwardly dribbles down the lane, flinging up an out of control shot that doesn't come close to going in.
The Spurs get the rebound, close out the game, then the series two nights later.
At the time, Varejao looked like a lost cause on offense. While his energy and hustle were rarely matched, his offensive game was simply abysmal. And on a team with Larry Hughes, Eric Snow, Pavlovic, and Gooden, it's not like there was a plethora of offensive options to mask his deficiencies.
Now, back to the present day...
For the past three years, Varejao has seen defenses routinely play off him. Way off him. His only option was to improve his mid-range game.
And so he has.
Once considered an offensive liability, Anderson now has the capability to step back and hit the 15-foot jump shot consistently. He even can knock down the sweeping hook as he moves across the lane.
He's a much better free throw shooter as well. His 66.7 percent average may not blow you away, but it's the 2-for-7 and 3-for-9 games that are no longer part of his game. He's only missed more than two free throws in a game three times this year.
Finally, he's developed a go-to low-post move, something that I never imaged he'd be able to accomplish. It's really quite beautiful to watch. He gets the ball on the high post and patiently lulls his defender with a couple of dribbles.
Then he has two options: One is to spin baseline and go in for the reverse layup. It's a great move against bigger, less athletic defenders.
The other is my personal favorite. He fakes baseline and spins back into the paint, putting up a fadeaway 12-foot jump shot, and it's surprisingly effective.
And often he throws up a textbook pump fake that only Sam Young could match, that gets the defender three feet in the air, allowing Varejao to easily draw the contact and get to the line (where, like I just mentioned, he's not awful).
Case in point: He's shooting 56.9 percent from the field on the season, and 74.4 percent in the last 13 games without Shaquille O'Neal.
What's next, maybe a three-point shot as well? Anything's possible...
(Sorry, Hawks fans.)
Moving Without the Ball/Finishing at the Rim
If you go to any playground across the country and find the token high-energy guy, he's probably not a great offensive player.
One of the main reasons is that he just doesn't understand what the other guys are going to do. Sure, his infectious vivacity allows him to grab some rebounds and get easy layups, but it's the little things he's not going to fully comprehend.
Like knowing which way the guy he's setting the screen for wants to go off the dribble.
Or seeing how the defense will break down two to three passes from now.
Or knowing where the best spot on the floor is to create just a little more space for the best scorer.
But let's say that token guy gets out on the court for a few years and plays with the same group of guys everyday, more or less. Can you guess how good that guy will be now?
He'll know where to roll when he sets a screen.
He'll see things happening before they actually unfold.
And he'll know what his most effective spot on the floor is at all times.
In case you couldn't figure out where I was going with this analogy, it's back to Varejao.
I don't know how much of his game you can credit to playing and practicing with LeBron James for six years, but that has to be a factor in his development.
He's had a chance to learn and play with one of the best basketball minds of this generation. Everything they've experienced as players, they've experienced together—and playing with someone like James assures Varejao will get open looks.
After six years, Anderson has an understanding of what James is going to do with the ball and where to be to put himself in a position to score. His movement without the ball is relentless; he's constantly on the go, making it impossible to keep a body on him.
Once he gets a sliver, James (or Mo Williams, who is an underrated "threading the needle" passer) will find him.
And now he has the ability to finish.
His hands underneath the hoop are unreal; he's like the anti-Braylon Edwards. He hauls in every difficult bounce pass in traffic and rarely turns the ball over (less than one per game).
I said last week he was the best finisher at the hoop in the league. I still stand by that statement. He plays shots off the glass like a pool player lining up a shot, only he does it in tenths of a second.
Moving without the ball is one of the lost arts in basketball, and Varejao has mastered it .
This is how Varejao got on the court, and in Mike Brown's system, you're not going to play unless you play defense and hustle.
Ummm...check and check.
I tried to look up some videos of his pick-and-roll defense on YouTube, but couldn't find anything. Disappointing.
There is, however, one good clip of his defense on Baron Davis in the final seconds that epitomizes his play on the other side of the ball.
Varejao switches out on Davis, keeps him in front, and forces a challenged, fadeaway jump shot instead of letting him get to the rim. He is mobile enough to cut guards off in the paint as well, though he sometimes struggles at closing out on three-point shooters, but that's because he's not the best athlete in the world.
His prowess has created some clamoring to get him a few votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
And his energy...need I say more?
How many non-Cavs fans out there hate this guy because of the way he scrambles all over the place, the way he takes charges, the way his hair bouncing makes it look like he's hit just a bit harder than he probably is?
Who knows how many games he's impacted simply by getting extra possessions that lead to a few more points?
The things he does are, in a word, invaluable. It gives a team so much confidence and inspiration to see a player hitting the floor for loose balls, taking charges from guys who outweigh him by 50 pounds, and drawing fouls on offensive rebounds and 50/50 balls.
And for what this stat is worth (it is somewhat fundamentally flawed), his plus/minus is second in the league only to James.
Few could predict that Anderson would have this much of an impact on a team with four All-Stars (Williams, James, Antawn Jamison, and Shaq). But he's surely proving his worth.
And who knows what the future holds for him. Is a potential 12/10/3 on 60/70 (FG percent, FT percent) out of the question?
Could he develop that jump shot even more, and maybe stretch it out to 17 or 18 feet?
Could he get a few different go-to low-post moves?
With the way he's progressed, it might not be out of the question. And playing out the rest of his contract with No. 23 wouldn't hurt his situation, either.