Dec 10, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers small forward Anthony Bennett sits on the bench during a game against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland won 109-94. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The unexpected seasons of two Cleveland Cavaliers' rookies

When the Cleveland Cavaliers signed undrafted rookie Matthew Dellavedova, Cavs fans were exactly running out to the store to get a Dellavedova jersey. His signing was not exactly water-cooler discussion the following morning, except perhaps in his native Australia. His contract was for two years worth a little over $1 million with a very small portion being guaranteed. Deals like that are typically given to players teams have little or no expectations for. In the case of Delly, that was probably no different but whatever expectations front office personnel placed on the scrappy rookie were likely exceeded. Brought in to camp to compete at the loaded guard position, he surprised many by making the final roster and than continued to do so throughout the course of the 82 game campaign.

For fellow rookie, Anthony Bennett, it was a just bit little different. Much of the discussions about who would be the first pick leading up to June 27th centered on other candidates, such Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo or Alex Len. This made Bennett the dark horse candidate. Even so, his name was called first.  Fans filled into The Q that night to watch the draft on the jumbotron and following David Stern’s announcement, everyone in attendance looked like they had just found out they failed a test they thought they aced. Bill Simmons said “Wow” on national television. The seats transformed into a sea of blank stares and dropped jaws.

The morning following the draft, once the initial shock wore off, everyone was talking about the Cavs’ selection of the 6’8’’ power forward from UNLV. The Cavaliers officially inked him to two-year deal with a third year option that has, at least, $10 million guaranteed.

By seasons end, Dellavedova had out performed top pick Bennett by a large margin. At some points during the year, it look liked Delly was the one deserving of $10 million guaranteed. How was Bennett was, at a point, historically bad and how Delly was so surprisingly productive is a question many Cavs fans are still asking themselves.

The first factor to consider when answering this question is Bennett’s shoulder and overall conditioning. He had surgery on his left rotator cuff in early May of 2013, which caused him to miss all pre-draft workouts, the NBA draft combine and the summer league. Following the operation, scouts said it would likely not affect where he would be drafted and it obviously didn’t. Knowing what we do now about his dismal debut season, one cannot help but wonder if missing all those offseason activities played a part in his struggles.

 As for the summer league, anybody who watches it knows that it is not the highest quality basketball but nonetheless it is still crucial for young players to gather experience. In Bennett’s case, the first taste of NBA caliber hoops he experience was training camp then a few games in the preseason. Then he was just thrown into the daily grind of the NBA. It also factored into the fact that Bennett was noticeably out of shape early on in the season. Without playing competitive hoops over the summer and working out at full health, his weight ballooned slightly and he lost time to condition. As the season started and Bennett was out of shape, he was playing catch-up in that department when he should have been focusing on other things, such as rebounding and defensive techniques. You know, everything but his weight. And it relates back his shoulder surgery.

While Bennett was busy rehabbing and trying to get back to playing condition, Delly was wrapped up in pre-draft process. He was being exposed to the very activities that Bennett was unable to participate in. He was working out for different teams and showcasing his skills against other hungry prospects. Delly did not get drafted but he was signed to a summer league roster. He played in the summer league for the Cavaliers and there, he was exposed to young lottery picks as well as veterans trying to hang on in the association. This experience in the summer league was huge for him. It allowed him to become acclimated to the professional level before camp even started. As a result, when he arrived at the Cavaliers training camp in late September, it was not the first time he was matched up against NBA talent, unlike Bennett.

Delly also had experience on his side this year – including four years playing college ball and his time on the Australian National Team. All his experience made him more seasoned than Bennett. And even if Bennett may be the one with more natural talent, Delly trumps him with experience and we saw how that worked out this year.

Beyond experience, the other main reason Delly had so much success as a rookie while Bennett struggled is because of the fact Delly was playing for his career. He had a lot more to lose than Bennett did. He was undrafted after playing four years of college ball at Saint Mary’s, a smaller mid-major in California, and there are a few “Matthew Dellavedova’s” every year. He needed to make the most of his one opportunity or else he probably would have ended up overseas or in the D-League. If he wanted to make it in the NBA, he had to firmly take hold of his opportunity with the Cavaliers. He had to do something to separate him from the pack.

To separate himself, he just decided to outwork and outhustle his teammate and competitors. And that was evident every time he was on the floor. If there was a 50-50 ball, my money would be on Delly to somehow come up with possession eight times out of 10. He definitely is not the most talented player, and Bennett, without question, has more raw talent than Delly. But you’ll never see Dellavedova setting a pick like this.

This is not to say that Bennett is not trying to succeed or not trying to get better. It’s just that when you stack up his effort level compared to Delly’s, it is not even close. Bennett really needed to make more Anderson Varejao type hustle plays this year.

In the offseason, I look for both of these players to improve. Both will certainly be back with the team next year, so we will get to see their growth firsthand. I don’t doubt that Bennett will close the productivity gap with Delly next year but after this year, it is a pretty wide gap. It is clear that Delly made the most of his experience prior to getting to the NBA as a result of his college experience and summer league games. He was certainly the Cavs best rookie and the future certainly looks promising for him. Looks like the No. 1 pick has some catching up to do.

Tags: Anthony Bennett Cleveland Cavaliers Matthew Dellavedova

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