When Ryan Anderson came to the Orlando Magic in June 2009, he was the "other guy" in the Vince Carter trade.
The proven veteran Carter was coming home to central Florida to be the Magic's 20-points-per-game scorer, and Anderson, an unproven player entering his second year in the league, was an overlooked throw-in in the deal.
Now, 2-12 years later, Carter is gone he's playing in Dallas these days and it has become painfully obvious to most of the Magic's opponents this season that Anderson was more than an afterthought in the deal. Much more.
Two weeks into the 2011-12 season, the 23-year old forward is one of the NBA's most intriguing stories. He leads the Magic in scoring at 19.7 points per game, is second to Dwight Howard in rebounding with 7.4 boards per contest and has made more 3-point shots (25) than any player in the league while knocking them down at a 45.5 percent clip.
Anderson's breakout start to the season has caught many fans outside Orlando and maybe Berkeley, Calif. off guard. For most, his success raises two questions: How did this happen? And can it continue?
The first question is fairly easy to answer. We should have seen it coming.
When the New Jersey Nets drafted Anderson in 2008, he was barely 20 years old. But during two years at Cal, Anderson emerged as one of the top players in the loaded Pac-10.
During his sophomore season, Anderson led the conference in scoring and finished third in rebounding, with 21.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game for the Golden Bears numbers that earned him a first team all-conference selection along with future NBA stars Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, James Harden and O.J. Mayo.
Anderson then had a solid rookie season with the Nets, averaging 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds in a hair under 20 minutes per game as a part-time starter. Since he joined the Magic in 2009, his numbers have steadily improved with each passing year.
In his first season in Orlando, Anderson averaged 7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 14.4 minutes per game. Last year, the big man scored 10.6 points and grabbed 5.5 boards in just more than 22 minutes per contest.
But the huge jump has come this season, and his coaches think they know why.
"He's just more confident, more mature now," Magic assistant Brendan Malone said. "That's been the difference."
Anderson would agree.
"The biggest lesson I've learned since coming into the NBA is how important the mental aspect of the game is," he said. "You have to take care of yourself physically, but the mental part of the game is what can really make the difference."
That's why Anderson went to work in the gym during the long offseason, taking up boxing to develop mental and physical toughness. Now, all his hard work is paying off. In probably the best physical condition of his life, Anderson is making the game look easy, taking advantage of the wide-open spaces that playing alongside Howard provides.
Still, the question remains: Can Anderson continue to put up these impressive early season numbers? It's certainly not out of the question.
Two years ago, Anderson played behind Rashard Lewis while splitting backup minutes with Brandon Bass. Last season, Bass was the starter and Anderson his backup.
By trading Lewis to Washington last season and dealing Bass to the Celtics this year, Magic general manager Otis Smith has cleared the deck for Anderson, and coach Stan Van Gundy has turned the power forward starting position over to him, despite the addition of former Celtics forward Glen Davis to the Orlando roster.
Anderson can still, at times, be a liability on defense, and Anderson knows that he must improve on that end of the floor if he's going to really be considered one of the top players at his position in the league.
"NBA team defense doesn't come naturally to Ryan," Malone said. "He really has to continue working at it."
But when it comes to offense and rebounding, Anderson is a unique talent. He's a big man who can shoot the 3, put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, and get on the offensive glass.
And the best news for Anderson and the Magic is that Anderson is a young player who is just beginning to realize his potential.