Sports fans are emotional lot. We invest so much time and feeling into our teams, and we often assume what seems like a clear plan to us is just as clear to them. Then, when they make a decision that baffles us, we often react with shock, anger, and the certainty that our team (run by experts who focus on the evaluation of basketball talent for a living) has made a franchise-destroying decision by not having the same vision that we fans (who have access to a small fraction of the information that professional sports franchises do) have for our team. Some fans can never find a way to come to grips with these decisions, while others practically go through the stages of grief in dealing with these shocking choices. I was definitely part of the latter group when it came to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ drafting of Anthony Bennett.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers won the first overall pick in this year’s draft at the NBA draft lottery, I had already been following various mock drafts and had a fairly solid idea of the candidates for that pick. Out of the six men considered to be potential candidates for the first pick in the draft, my preference list went Nerlens Noel, Otto Porter, Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, Anthony Bennett, and Ben McLemore. Despite hearing rumors the Cavaliers had interest in Bennett, the idea of the Cavaliers selecting another power forward after taking Tristan Thompson fourth overall in 2011 and watching his tremendous growth last year didn’t make any sense to me. The struggles of tweener forwards such as Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley on defense and finding a role in this league also came to mind when reading about Bennett or discussing him with friends. When it came out that Bennett had rotator cuff surgery, I was even less interested. His asthma was also concerning as the UNLV product does not seem to be a fitness fanatic to begin with. Then, after hearing about Bennett gaining weight due to lack of exercise after the surgery, I actively turned against him. As I sat at my buddy’s home on draft night, I became disgusted when ESPN showed Bennett waiting for the draft to begin. “He’s fat!” I said to the people watching with me. “Why in the world would anyone want a fat basketball player with a bum shoulder who can’t guard anyone?” A short time later, as Commissioner David Stern took his sweet time announcing the Cavaliers choice, I was sure that the “A” stuck in his mouth was for Alex Len. Needless to say I had a profound reaction when Bennett was announce. Shock doesn’t begin to describe it. Bill Simmons was shocked. Mike Schreiner gasped, doubled over like he had been punched in the stomach, straightened up and yelled an expletive, and then starred off into space.
I then proceeded to go through the stages of grief over the Cavaliers’ selection of Bennett. First there was denial. I couldn’t believe Bennett was the player the Cavaliers wanted, it made no sense to me. I followed that up with anger, addressing Chris Grant (who I think has done a very nice job rebuilding the team) as a “glorified fantasy basketball player” who tries so hard to be smarter than everyone else that he outsmarted himself. Then there was bargaining, I was sure that the Cavaliers had selected Bennett for a trade of some sort, despite ESPN announcing otherwise. My buddy squashed this hope with the following question, “Who would give the Cavs want they want in exchange for them selecting Bennett number one?” This was followed by depression as I starred at the television for several more picks, mumbling to myself. Finally, there was acceptance, as I left the draft party telling my friends (and myself) “look on the bright side, he’ll be better than Marreese Speights”.
Over the last few months, I began to spend more time reading up on Bennett (I had not put as much time into researching him as other top prospects as I thought it was unlikely the Cavaliers would draft him). What I found was both concerning and intriguing. Bennett drew comparisons to fellow UNLV product and former number one overall pick Larry Johnson for his offensive ability (side note: as someone who went from being a fifth grader to a junior in college during the 90’s, “Grandmamma” has a special place in my heart). His advanced stats at UNLV portray an elite offensive player and underrated defender. ESPN’s Chad Ford, arguably the most respected draft analyst today, rated Bennett as the fourth best prospect in the draft, saying that Bennett is “a mismatch waiting to happen” and the player in the draft most likely to average 20 and 10 in his career. ESPN analytics guru Kevin Pelton said that Bennett was the only player in the top 30 of the predraft rankings “without any statistical weaknesses”. DraftExpress also gives a positive description of Bennett’s potential not only as a scorer, but as a two-way threat due to his length, strength, and athleticism. As the same time, none of these sources thought Bennett would be the first overall pick in the draft, and while all agreed the Cavaliers picked a very solid player, they also felt that better players were available (Nerlens Noel and Otto Porter were considered both better prospects and fits for the team at the time). As he has returned to basketball activities, The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto reports that the rookie forward has impressed his teammates with his shooting touch and quickness in driving to the basket.
In the two months since the 2013 NBA Draft, I have come to peace with the Cavaliers’ selection of Bennett. He may not have been my choice. He may not have been the most natural fit for the team. But there is no doubt that he is a tremendously talented offensive player who will bring much needed versatility and offensive firepower to the team’s rotation. As a diehard Cavaliers fan, I am rooting hard for Anthony Bennett to prove me wrong in my initial reactions and become the special player he seemingly has the potential to be.