Nick Anderson is criminally underrated, even by Orlando Magic fans

The Orlando Magic's original home uniforms may be among the most iconic designs in NBA history. (Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport)
The Orlando Magic's original home uniforms may be among the most iconic designs in NBA history. (Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport) /

Nick Anderson is known for the steal and being the Orlando Magic’s first draft pick. But he is much more than that. He is underrated by everyone.

The final moments of Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls are etched in every Magic fan’s collective memory.

The Magic had lost the ball on a forced pass into the lane to try to get the ball to Anfernee Hardaway. The team had seemingly frittered away homecourt advantage to Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Their championship pedigree even on a historically bad game from Jordan (19 points and 9-for-22 shooting) was going to end the confidence of this young team.

The Bulls stacked their players in front of their bench to inbound the ball. Jordan broke free and caught the ball as they broke toward the frontcourt. Nick Anderson had the world’s best player — fresh off his baseball sabbatical — one on one and the Magic needed to get the ball back or face little time to tie the game.

Nick Anderson poked at the ball and Jordan got ahead of him. But he was in no hurry. Anderson stayed behind him, Jordan looking over his shoulder to try to find the veteran guard trailing him.

He lost sight of him for just a moment and Anderson pounced. He poked the ball away from Michael Jordan to Anfernee Hardaway. Anfernee Hardaway raced to the other end of the floor, with only Toni Kukoc to beat, and laced a pass to Horace Grant in stride. Horace Grant got around Toni Kukoc just enough to dunk it.

The whole Orlando Arena went wild. Jordan would have his chance to retake the lead. He got past Donald Royal to the free-throw line as the Magic tried to close in on the league’s best player.

Donald Royal was close enough to give even Michael Jordan some pause. He tried to fire the ball toward the baseline where Scottie Pippen was coming open. But the ball rattled off his fingertips and out of bounds. Jordan had committed two turnovers in the final 15 seconds of the game and the Magic had escaped with the Game 1.

It felt after that 94-91 win, the Magic could truly accomplish anything. This game is considered the greatest moment in Magic history. It is the moment for Magic fans that defines Anderson’s career.

The unfortunate tragedy is that Anderson nationally is considered a choker for the four free throws he missed in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals. That moment and that defeat sent the young Magic into a tailspin that cost them that championship (potentially).

Anderson struggled with his free throw shooting for much of his career and certainly had something of a mental block after this high-profile moment. He has, fortunately, come to terms with it and is willing to talk about his worst moment as much as he enjoys talking about his best moment.

And, in Orlando at least, Anderson is remembered more for his good in Orlando than anything else. He is the original Magic player and the one who stayed “home” and still contributes to the franchise — both within the organization and on camera.

Still, even with all this — the highs and the lows and the general appreciation — it feels like Anderson is generally underappreciated. Or, if not underappreciated, underrated.

People forget how good he was.

He starred for the team as it moved from the expansion era to the Shaquille O’Neal era. And then when Shaquille O’Neal established himself on the team, Nick Anderson became a strong role player.

Anderson averaged 15.4 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game on a 50.4-percent effective field goal percentage in 10 seasons with the Magic. He topped off averaging 19.9 points per game in 1992 and 1993. He was the best player on the Magic’s last team without O’Neal. He was the second-best player and one of the team’s leading scorers on O’Neal’s rookie team.

Watching the Magic Classics on FOX Sports Florida really shows how much Anderson evolved and became such an important player. In every game, he makes some impact even if he is not the starring player. And this was his true value.

He came off the bench during the expansion year as a slashing wing player. He provided energy as he learned the league, flying to the rim.

But his game quickly evolved as his role increased.

He went from shooting 5.9 percent on 3-pointers in 1990 (his rookie year) to 35.3 percent in 1992. By the time the 1995 Playoffs come around, Anderson is a reliable 3-point shooter.

Among Anderson’s accolades was becoming the first player to score 50 points off the bench, when he was feeling ill and gave coach Matt Guokas all he could give. Of course, O’Neal overpowered him in that game by tearing the basket down.

He scored 41 in O’Neal’s debut earlier that season, working the post to defeat the Miami Heat and getting out in transition. Anderson worked best in the post where he used his big 6-foot-6 body to overpower the typically smaller guards of the era.

Anderson used that size well defensively. Especially when he did not have the same scoring burden. He had a positive defensive box plus-minus in every year but his first and last season of his career. He totaled more than three defensive win shares three times in his career.

In that Game 1 win over the Bulls, Anderson proved a tough guy to move off the block whenever Jordan tried to post him up. Anderson did about as well as anyone could to keep Jordan out of the paint. Anderson could at least hold his own to defend Jordan one on one.

Anderson played 10 seasons in Orlando and so ranks highly on ever team record book that matters. But history has sort of forgotten him.

He is no longer in the top 10 in scoring average in team history. The memory of his game has faded. All that is left are the moments like his steal.

Anderson sacrificed his role because he knew the team would be better for it. And he changed his game to fit the new style — developing that 3-point shot especially. There are not a lot of players who would have done that so willingly and seamlessly.

Anderson was rightfully the first call to enter the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. When the team finally decides to retire jerseys, it still feels fitting that Anderson’s No. 25 would hang in the rafters for everything he did for the organization.

Anderson was an exceptional player. Someone who was much more than some free throws and a steal. Whenever the Magic needed him — and whatever the Magic needed him for — he almost always stepped up and found a way to contribute.

That was most on display in this series against the Bulls. Anderson scored 15.2 points per game and shot 41.4 percent on threes. He was a key part of the series.

Magic's expansion team struggled, but still had fun. dark. Next

But the series will always be remembered for his steal in Game 1. That is always what Anderson will be remembered for. And he deserves that and a whole lot more.