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The Wine-and-Gold Phoenix - How Anthony Bennett Rose from the Ashes of a Lost Season

The 2013 rookie class has been bad.

The raw numbers produced by the rookies this season have been fairly awful. So far, little promise has been shown by the class as a whole. Of the 60 draft selections, six are playing more than 23 minutes per game. Three are averaging over 10 points per game. Six are averaging more than league average in Win Shares/48 minutes, and two of those guys, Detroit’s Tony Mitchell and Portland’s Allen Crabbe, have played a combined 20 games. Of the regular rotation rookies, only C.J. McCollum and Tim Hardaway Jr. are hitting above 38 percent from three. The top five has produced only one regular starter, and Victor Oladipo’s season has been marred by poor shooting and a bizarre attempt to transform a 6-5 wing player that can’t dribble into a point guard.

At the top of this crap heap is Anthony Bennett. The number one pick, when he was drafted, was touted before the draft for his offensive abilities and rebounding skill. Even though he didn’t show a lot defensively at UNLV, his draft stock was high due to his seemingly well-rounded offensive game. In fact, here’s what I wrote on him in a pre-draft profile in May:

“I think the defensive lapses are more an issue of lack of necessity to learn the defensive game thanks to his scoring ability and a great defensive unit at UNLV than an unwillingness to play on that side of the ball. Once in the NBA, I could see Bennett quickly adapting to giving much more effort on this side of the ball. That being said, Bennett is still a good choice this high because at 20 years old, his offensive game is perfect to suit his particular physique and will only continue to improve as he learns the nuances of an NBA offense. Bennett is certainly worth his rankings by the draft experts because of this upside.”

However, once the Cavaliers drafted him, Bennett immediately hit a brick wall. After an offseason shoulder surgery to repair a SLAP lesion, Bennett missed all of the summer league, and got cleared just before training camp. In that time, he had ballooned from a playing weight of 240 pounds to 260 when he entered training camp. He developed sleep apnea, and that combined with the weight gain, injury, and the Cavs’ circus of a locker room, set off Bennett’s horrific first half of 2013-14.

The raw numbers were bad. Through January 15th, Bennett appeared in 31 of 39 games, and played at least 15 minutes in 5 of those games. He shot 26.9 percent from the field, averaging 2.4 points per game. Only fellow rookie Phil Pressey (who was not drafted) has shot under 30 percent and been a regular rotation player this season. His true shooting percentage was a ghastly 31.9 percent. And most damning of all, Bennett’s PER hovered between one and three all season; the lowest PER of a number one pick during his rookie season ever recorded by a whole 10 points.

The stats were bad, but the on-court eye test was arguably worst. Bennett missed his first 15 shots as a pro before hitting a three in the fifth game of the season against Milwaukee. He re-injured his shoulder against Philadelphia in November. There were many missed dunks and bunnies in between. Bennett didn’t seem to either know or care what was going on defensively. There was the walking screen against Philadelphia in January. His PNR defense was a joke, as he’d often not be in correct position to allow guards to fight through a screen, and he was perhaps the worst with the team-wide issue of forgetting to sprint back and guard the roll man, which screwed up the team’s entire defensive rotations. Offensively, outside of the occasional wing three, Bennett mostly just hid under the basket, and got a majority of the points he did score off tip-ins or garbage baskets. Halfway through the season, not only had Bennett looked like baked cat crap, he had shown almost zero signs of improvement.

That all seemed to change as the team began to implode around him in late January. After several games of being buried on the bench for his performance in a blowout win over the Sixers, Bennett played in just three of the next eight games as the Cavs incorporated Luol Deng into the lineup. During this time, many thought it was time to send Bennett to the D-League. But after a terrible second-half collapse against Phoenix in which the Cavs’ bench looked like hot garbage, Bennett got the call-up to play big minutes for the Cavs against the Pelicans. Bennett responded by going for 15 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes of game action in the loss. He didn’t play much against New York or Houston, but was decent in the time he was on the court against both despite his teammates lacking a pulse completely and the blowout nature of both games. Then he played decently against Dallas, scoring 11 points in the shootout loss, and against the Lakers, Bennett had 14 and eight as he was a part of the Cavs’ attempt to claw back from a 25-point deficit against a Lakers team with six healthy players. Then against the Wizards and Kings, he had perhaps his two best games of the season; his best defensive performance against the Wizards, where he was honestly better in defending Nene and Marcin Gortat than Tristan Thompson was, and he grabbed his first career double-double against the Kings, with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Over the last nine games, Bennett’s numbers have jumped to 43 percent shooting, 46.7 percent on three-pointers, and 8.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. These numbers would rank 11th, third, fifth and second, respectively, among NBA rookies this season. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds; both perfectly acceptable numbers for a young power forward. That’s quite the transformation.

So how did Bennett seemingly take a leap in play, especially as the team went to crap and then re-emerged as a competent basketball outfit again? Bennett’s gotten in pretty good shape over the course of the season, and it’s finally starting to show in his play. He’s lost 15 pounds since training camp, and you can see the results in his physique, from his less prominent gut to his more finely toned shoulders. He also seems to be running with more of a spring in his step, and his activity on the defensive end has definitely increased. This also could explain the improvement in his shooting, because he’s starting to get more lift in his jumper, and he’s appeared to look a little stronger at the rim, even though he’s not hitting a great percentage from there.

Another big reason is the lineups the team is using Bennett with. Part of the reason Bennett has been bad could be that the Cavs haven’t used him with the same players very often, throwing him into hodge podge bench units that lack consistency. This is evidenced by the fact that Bennett’s most used 5-man lineup is STILL the lineup of Jarrett Jack, Alonzo Gee, C.J. Miles, Bennett and Andrew Bynum, a lineup that was used for five games at the start of the season and fizzled out quickly because Bennett and Gee were a horrible pairing together and Bynum got promoted to the starting lineup. However, since the New Orleans game, the Cavs have found some places to use Bennett consistently.

The most common lineup Bennett has played with has actually been with the starters in place of Anderson Varejao, which the Cavs have used in seven of the nine games at some point. This unit, while a tire fire on defense, has been used to push the pace against bigger opponents, and worked out fairly well especially in the Washington game, where the Cavs got some good transition looks out of this.

This group is good for Bennett because it allows him to put on his runaway freight train act that got him a lot of publicity at UNLV. Another promising lineup could be Dellavedova/Miles/Waiters/Bennett/Zeller, a bench unit that combines the Cavs’ best bench-guard combination and the defensively promising Bennett/Zeller pairing. Also promising is that regardless of lineups, the Cavs have appeared to have buried Earl Clark, who’s been terrible this season, in favor of more Bennett minutes, which hopefully ensures that Bennett will continue to get the playing time he needs to develop into what he should be.

Bennett’s looked pretty promising since that New Orleans game, and it’s nice to see that he might have finally broken through the rookie wall to showcase the reasons that he was considered the best offensive draft prospect of 2013. He still has a long way to go, mainly involving consistency, inside scoring, and defense, but the last three weeks have been very nice to see. If Bennett can finish out the season like this, I have high hopes for his 14-15 season. Even though he looked like a bust, I’ve always held out faith, because he has mirrored to a T the trajectory of his best NBA comparison from the draft. Here’s what I wrote about his player comparison:

Zach Randolph is a great comparison for Bennett. Mainly, I think this applies because the same distinction must be made about Bennett that was made about Z-Bo: Bennett is not a shooter who can play the post; he’s a post that can shoot. He’s not Rashard Lewis, he’s not KG and he’s certainly not Ryan Anderson (Actually, I think the Hornets are a great situation for him, Anderson on the perimeter and Bennett inside would be really fun). He’s a guy like Chris Bosh or in his prime Z-Bo, in that he is best utilized in the post but can launch the occasional three. I think Bennett is a better shooter and certainly has better shot selection than Z-Bo. That’s a bit of a trade-off for Randolph’s size and back-to-the-basket ability, but I think Bennett is going to be a very similar player to Randolph and hopefully will have a more productive career and better attitude than mid-00s Z-Bo.

Randolph’s rookie year was also an atrocity, as he averaged just 2.8 points and 1.7 rebounds per game, shot 45 percent from the field, and basically never saw the floor behind Rasheed Wallace (Granted, his PER was much better). By year three, he was a full-time starter, had developed his inside game to near-elite levels, and was an offensive force. Given what we’ve seen from Bennett over the last few weeks, I think a similar trajectory is possible, especially if Bennett has strong, productive off-seasons from here on out. I’m not sure Bennett’s potential can’t still be realized, and am beginning to think that Bennett, not Tristan Thompson, is the power forward of the future.

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