Ever since Dirk Nowitzki first emerged as an All-Star nearly a decade ago, NBA teams have sought to replicate the formula that has brought the Dallas Mavericks so much success. For several years, any tall young European player who showed the ability to shoot accurately from the perimeter was tagged as "the next Dirk Nowitzki."
In The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, the authors of Free Darko identify Zarko Cabarkapa, Pau Gasol, Maciej Lampe and, yes, Darko Milicic as examples. More recently, Andrea Bargnani of the Toronto Raptors has been stuck with the Nowitzki comparison since he entered the league.
At some point, it became evident that the search for a successor was fruitless. Nowitzki is a trend-setter, but also one of a kind. There is no one else truly equivalent to Nowitzki in NBA history. There do exist, however, players with Nowitzki-like skills. It turns out we were just looking in the wrong place. Instead of growing up in Europe, the closest analogue was developing in anonymity not far outside Sacramento.
As compared to Nowitzki, Ryan Anderson's NBA career has produced relatively little fanfare. The biggest claim to fame for the Orlando Magic reserve was being part of the trade that also sent Vince Carter from the New Jersey Nets to Orlando. In three seasons, Anderson has started just 50 games, and he spent part of last year out of the Magic's rotation before the team traded Rashard Lewis.
Yet Anderson has shown a unique skill set of his own that merits the seemingly preposterous comparison to Nowitzki.
The most important characteristic, naturally, is shooting range. After making 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts last season, Anderson is at 37.9 percent for his career. That ranks him 92nd in NBA history--six spots behind Nowitzki, who has shot 38.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Of the top 100 players in career three-point accuracy, Nowitzki is the only 7-footer. Anderson is one of 14 players 6-10 or taller. This group includes a handful of players like Hedo Turkoglu who primarily play on the perimeter. If we narrow down specifically to pure post players, Nowitzki and Anderson are joined by just five other peers: Matt Bonner, Channing Frye, Terry Mills, Troy Murphy and Mehmet Okur.
To some extent, Anderson actually out-Dirks Nowitzki from downtown. He attempted 5.3 three-pointers a game last season, more than Nowitzki ever has during his NBA career. While Nowitzki has become increasingly dependent on the long two-pointer as he ages, Anderson sticks with more efficient three-point attempts, just as his coach Stan Van Gundy prefers.
Despite the slightly different styles, the two players have ended up posting similar shooting numbers. Last season, Nowitzki had a .612-.591 advantage in True Shooting Percentage. The year before, they were even closer, with Nowitzki putting up a .578 true shooting percentage to Anderson's .574 mark.
If there's one thing that separates Anderson and Nowitzki, it's the same characteristic that makes Nowitzki so unique statistically: his ability to create his own shot on the perimeter. While stretch fours have come in vogue in the modern NBA, nearly all of them are catch-and-shoot players who rely on teammates to set up shots for them. Nowitzki can isolate and generate offense, as reflected in his high usage rates. Twice, he's used at least 30 percent of the Mavericks' plays. Last year, he was at 28.2 percent during the regular season and an incredible 32.0 percent during Dallas' run to the championship.
Anderson is hardly a specialist by this measure. His usage rate last season, 20.3 percent, was better than league average. Still, to follow in Nowitzki's footsteps Anderson will have to get better at using the dribble to create shot attempts for himself. He showed more promise as a creator during 2009-10, when he was playing almost exclusively with reserves. That year, Anderson used nearly a quarter of Orlando's plays and was assisted on just 64.5 percent of his field goals according to Hoopdata.com, a mark in line with Nowitzki's 63.1 percent assisted rate last season.
In fact, Anderson's numbers from his second season track well across the board with what Nowitzki did in 1999-00, his sophomore campaign.
Player TS% Usg Reb% 3P% FT%
Nowitzki .564 .201 .095 .379 .830
Anderson .574 .246 .127 .370 .866
Of course, by year three, Nowitzki was well on his way to superstardom. Anderson took a nice step forward, but he's not quite there yet. Or anywhere close. So, despite the similarity, there's no reason to believe that Anderson is destined to win an MVP award, make 10 All-Star games or ultimately add the missing piece to his resume by winning a championship and Finals MVP in his 30s.
What the comparison does suggest, however, is that Anderson could thrive with a larger role. If he kept up the same level of performance over 35 minutes a night, Anderson could be expected to average 16.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. That's without even considering the improvement that Anderson can be expected to make as he edges into his mid-20s. As Nowitzki has, Anderson will have to improve defensively in order to merit big minutes. But the underlying skills are there for Anderson to make an impact.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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