When the Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett with the first pick of the 2013 NBA Draft it seemed as though everyone, even Bennett himself, expected someone else’s name to get called. There’s a difference between, “Wow, they picked me first,” and “Wow, they picked me first,” and Bennett was the latter. I was half expecting ESPN to play a Nate Dogg “Hold Up” voiceover after his selection. It’s probably a bad sign when the player himself is surprised to go that high.
We all know what happened next: Anthony Bennett, coming off of surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff (which plagued him throughout his freshman year at UNLV), was noticeably out of shape entering training camp. Then to make matters worse, Mike Brown told the media that Bennett had been diagnosed with asthma and sleep apnea disorder. Bennett ballooned to 255+ pounds to start the year, missed his first 16 shots and didn’t score in double figures until January 28th — finishing the year averaging just 4.2PPG and 3.0RBG — numbers reserved typically for guys that aren’t the No. 1 pick. Seriously, it was bad. How bad? Real bad: The most well known No. 1 “bust” belongs to the 2001 No. 1 pick, the immortal Kwame Brown. Well, Bennett’s numbers were WORSE than Brown’s rookie numbers (4.5PPG, 3.5RBG).
But that’s the past.
Anthony Bennett has shown, albeit in summer league, the newfound (or rediscovered) ability to hit shots in rhythm from distance and the ability to score the ball attacking the rim. Playing with energy and enthusiasm this summer, Bennett is poised to have a breakout season with the Cavaliers.
This offseason Bennett hired a personal chef, had an entire summer to workout and apparently curbed the midnight eating habits that derailed his and Betty Draper’s waistline in Season 5 of Mad Men. The result is the 15-20 pound Bennett-light edition whose performance at the NBA Summer League has once again surprised everyone, this time for a good reason. He’s DOING THINGS. He averaged 14.0 PPG and 8.3 RBG in the three preliminary games and is making plays like this (https://vine.co/v/MxD9Ej7iJw0), and this (https://vine.co/v/MxqQlFwh71H) and even some of this!! (https://vine.co/v/MxjmA5IQ2qW). And for the pessimistic fan, yes, it is only Summer League. Summer League is chop full of undrafted rookies, players fighting for a training camp invitation or a contract oversees; a high pick should stand out playing against them (unless of course, you’re Derrick Williams). The fact that Anthony Bennett IS standing out makes all the difference. The No. 1 pick SHOULD be making these plays. AB is running up and down the court actively looking for the ball. He’s attacking the rim without unnecessary hesitation. He’s shooting (and making) jump shots with confidence. This is a far cry from the player who did this (http://twitpic.com/drmvsy) in real-time last year. The best part of all of this? He’s still not in peak shape yet. The mere subtraction of some excess weight has allowed Bennett to resume playing basketball the way that resulted in him being chosen in the first place.
There’s something else different about Anthony Bennett besides his weight and performance: his demeanor. He actually looks like a guy who wants to play basketball. He’s smiling a lot more now. He’s interacting with teammates. He’s actually having fun out there. After a year in which Bennett felt the high that comes with being selected No. 1 in the draft, followed shortly by the lows he felt throughout the season, one year later Bennett looks like an entirely different player. I’ll give him some leeway for his performance last season given his injury, but no one can excuse his effort. There were stretches where Bennett looked like he had just discovered the game of basketball that day (You could almost read his thought process of a play along with him: “Like O.K. fake a glance toward Dion in the corner, then I’ll hesitate left and try and go right”). At one point, I remember Austin Carr, the former Cavalier player and current announcer, praised Bennett for confidently catching a pass and dribbling toward the hoop without stopping to overthink it (he got fouled and went to the line). He was praising a player for moving!!!! It’s not like Anthony Bennett wasn’t capable of success. (He put up 16.1 PPG and 8.1 RPG in college!) It was as if Bennett forgot how to play the game.
Expectations, which once included becoming a 20-10 partner for Kyrie Irving and possibly win ROY, have been downscaled to things like “see the floor.” Historically awful seasons will do that to you.
Bennett comes into his second campaign with brand new teammates (see James, LeBron and Wiggins, Andrew for more information) and a new coach in David Blatt. He’s now fourth on the totem pole when it comes down to expectations; the addition of newly minted No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and the homecoming reunion of the 2003 No. 1 pick LeBron James to a team that already includes 2011 No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving allows far less attention to be paid to Bennett. It also gives the Cavaliers four No. 1 selections on one team, the first time since the 1988-89 Lakers team (Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mychal Thompson) to accomplish such a feat (per http://regressing.deadspin.com/the-cavs-are-the-first-team-in-over-50-years-to-have-fo-1603769868).
The words “fresh start” are thrown around all too often as a means to motivate and explain opportunities that lie ahead for players on a new team or at the start of a brand new season. In reality Anthony Bennett is still a Cavalier. That much has remained the same. But with the focus and attention being drawn toward LeBron James, and to a smaller degree Irving and Wiggins, Anthony Bennett has an opportunity to begin this season a new. Normally expectations would have grown exponentially in Bennett’s second year. But it’s almost as if 2013 came and went a decade ago; Bennett’s success no longer is necessary for the Cavaliers to also succeed. Cavaliers’ losses will not be attributed to a lousy performance from Bennett. There truly is nowhere to go but up from here.
But he can be apart of the reason for the team’s success.
In a great interview with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, David Blatt discussed Anthony Bennett’s role going forward this season and how it’s fair to “assume” Bennett can fill the 3&D role Shane Battier played in Miami (http://grantland.com/the-triangle/qa-cavs-coach-david-blatt-on-lebron-princeton-and-the-natural/). While I for one am chalking this one up as a blatant talking-up by his Head Coach, Bennett is still set up to thrive this season in Cleveland.
Bennett has shown, albeit in summer league, the newfound (or rediscovered) ability to hit shots in rhythm from distance, or slashing to the rim. Playing with energy and enthusiasm this summer, Bennett looks like he actually wants to play the game. He’s no longer overthinking the options on each play; instead he’s making strong moves as soon as he catches the basketball — he looks comfortable on the court — and is making plays instead of standing around.
Anyone who plays with LeBron James certainly sees their value go up; it’s one of the perks of playing with the games’ best player. James has the unique ability to take over a game on his own, but realizes he can’t do it alone for 82+ games. He throws the extra pass and encourages teammates to shoot. Can you imagine the harassment Bennett would go through playing with a certain LA Laker player? He’d come out of timeouts sobbing.
As long as Anthony Bennett can translate his Summer League effort into the NBA season, he’ll find himself playing a role off the bench this year. Right now Bennett’s best trait is his rebounding: he’s grabbed 8.3 RBG in Las Vegas throughout the first three games, including 14 against the Spurs. Effort on the glass not only draws praise from coaches and teammates, but it also correlates into easier opportunities to score the ball. For a guy who’s still trying to figure out how to consistently bang home his jump shot (Bennett is shooting only 18.2 percent from 3, but a respectable 44.0 percent overall), grabbing rebounds is an easy way to stay on the court. Playing alongside Irving, Wiggins, Waiters and James (four players capable of scoring for themselves to varying degrees) will allow Anthony Bennett to worry less about scoring and more about how he can help the team. Taking a note from a healthy Anderson Varejao might be the key to success early on for AB: energy, hustle and rebounding are areas the Cavaliers need Bennett to shine. Scoring is no longer a prerequisite for a successful season. Mike Miller (who just so happens to be a Cav now!), Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier all played key roles for the Miami Heat without scoring the basketball.
By seasons end, under the tutelage of James and Blatt, expect some breakout performances from Anthony Bennett. Now in better shape, with lowered expectations and with better teammates, Bennett can get back to having fun playing basketball. Maybe now, we can see the real AB.