The Curious Case of Anthony Bennett

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On December 20th 2015 former first overall pick Anthony Bennett made a request that his team, the Toronto Raptors, send him down to the NBA’s Development League to play for the their affiliate, the 905 Raptors. It was an unprecedented move—no player in NBA history, selected first overall, had played ball in the D-League—but it was a move that was overdue. It was also a move that took a lot of pride swallowing from Bennett.

“You know, practice wasn’t enough” Bennett tells BallnRoll.com prior to the Raptors’ tilt with the Boston Celtics on January 20th. “Watching the games, and learning as the year’s gone by, I just wanted to see how I was incorporating everything into my game, so I asked to go down”.
 

Bennett has struggled to find his groove in his D-League stints—averaging just 11 points per game on 33 per cent shooting—but he’s understandably rusty when it comes to competitive action, and now he’s getting on the court at least. The former UNLV standout has appeared in just 10 games this season for his hometown team, averaging less than 6 minutes of action in those tilts. Predictably Bennett has failed to excel in that limited action—less than 2 points per game on 26 per cent shooting. But that’s been the story of Bennett’s career thus far: limited chances and, consequently, underwhelming production.

Bennett is playing in his third NBA season, but the Brampton, Ontario native is already being talked about as one of the biggest draft busts of all time. A quick Google search shows Bennett’s name mentioned in articles alongside the likes of Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, Michael Olowokandi and Hasheem Thabeet (the latter being the highest pick to be sent down to the D-League prior to Bennett’s demotion), all considered to be high draft pick disasters. Bennett is still very young, however—just 22—and he has time to turn his career around.

One man who agrees with that sentiment is Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk, Bennett’s teammate for Team Canada. The two Canucks played together last summer in the Pan American Games, a tournament in which Bennett impressed, averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. “He was a great teammate, a great guy” Olynyk says. “He was playing good basketball, being aggressive”.

There was a freedom to Bennett’s game last summer, a freedom we haven’t seen in the NBA thus far. Being selected first overall seems to have been more of a curse than a blessing for Bennett.
 
 

Bennett’s selection came on the heels of a great season for the Runnin’ Rebels and he became the first Canadian to be drafted number one overall in NBA history. For Canadian basketball it was a watershed moment, one that would be repeated the following year when Andrew Wiggins was selected first overall by the insanely fortunate Cavaliers (seriously: three number one picks in four years!), but for Bennett personally the selection said more about the overall quality of the draft than it did about his own game.

As disappointing as Bennett has been, no player from the 2013 draft has set the world alight during the past two and a half seasons. The Cavaliers certainly reached by selecting Bennett at one—they already had a power-forward and Bennett was coming off of shoulder surgery—but there was no standout player crying out to be drafted above everyone else.

That said, many analysts had Bennett going somewhere between 5 and 10—few expected him to go first overall. Nerlens Noel, the most talented player in the draft, slid down the draft standings because of injury and the Cavaliers still had enough faith in Dion Waiters to pass on shooting-guard Victor Oladipo. Along with his shoulder surgery issues there were real doubts about what Bennett’s best position would be. Bennett played power-forward in college, but at just 6 foot 7 inches, he would be a very undersized four in the NBA.

Bennett’s selection by the Cavaliers may have done wonders for the overall prestige of Canadian basketball—at least, initially—but it was disastrous for the player personally. Bennett entered his rookie year under pressure to perform right off the bat—to hit the ground running—as all first overalls picks are expected to do. Except that Bennett wasn’t a true first overall pick—at least not in the sense that recent draft selections, Anthony Davis, Andrew Wiggins and Kyrie Irving were.

Bennett was a coin flip, a shot in the dark—the Cavs knew they were taking a chance. But nonetheless the pressure of that label, “first overall pick”, hung heavy on Bennett’s shoulders. But looking back on the ups and downs of that first season Bennett remains positive: “It was a learning experience, there’s nothing I can do about it now, but work”.

It certainly didn’t help that the Cavaliers, under coach Mike Brown (in his second stint with the team) were in win-now mode. The team was aiming to return to the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James’ departure and had gambled that the likes of Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum (gulp) would help them snatch a low-tier playoff seed in a mediocre Eastern Conference. Bennett was expected to contribute right away—to assist a desperate franchise in their short-term goal—but when he struggled early he was given little-to-no leeway.
 
 

There was no feeling out process for Bennett in Cleveland, no smooth transition into the pros—no freedom to make mistakes. If Bennett had been selected by a team that was brazenly tanking (like today’s 76ers) he might have been given free reign to screw up. But not for a team, and a coach, that were feeling immense pressure to succeed in the moment.

When asked about what he could’ve done differently in his rookie year and what the organization could’ve done to make his transition to the pro game smoother, Bennett is very diplomatic—admirably so—placing the entire focus on his own perceived shortcomings: “Honestly, I guess coming off surgery, and being 260 pounds I could’ve kept watching my weight a little better. Throughout that whole season, that was what was sticking with me, that was the focus. I ended up getting down to 240, 245 but I didn’t really feel comfortable on the court”.

Despite their efforts the Cavaliers were a disaster in 2013-14, winning just 33 games. Bennett’s rookie season just as bad. He was relegated to just 12 minutes per game—mostly garbage time—averaging just 4 points and 3 rebounds on 35 per cent shooting. It will go down as one of the poorer rookie seasons of all time and certainly the worst by a first overall pick. But Bennett sees value in his rookie-season struggle: “You just got to go in with the mindset that you’ve got to learn everyday. There have been a lot of ups and downs but you’ve got people around you who can help you”. Any help that Bennett received in Cleveland, however, didn’t last into the summer of 2014.

In the off-season the Cavaliers’ fortunes drastically improved as LeBron James returned home in free-agency, but Bennett experienced more dysfunction as a result. He was traded to the Timberwolves as a throw-in, part of the deal that saw Wiggins exchanged for Kevin Love. Bennett saw a slight uptick in his minutes as a member of the T-Wolves—and he scored a career-high 20 points in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs—but his production remained underwhelming and nagging injuries derailed his season. In late September of last year Bennett was waived by the Timberwolves, who bought out the remainder of his contract.

Almost immediately the Toronto Raptors snapped Bennett up off waivers for a minimum contract. On returning to his hometown Bennett seems relaxed, despite all the implicit pressure that comes with such a move. “Honestly, I just feel comfortable here. There are friends and family here, everyone by my side, along with these amazing guys, the coaching staff, and trainers. They just want to see me get better and succeed”.
 

On the surface of things Bennett appears no closer to turning things around in his home town than he did in Cleveland or Minnesota—Dwane Casey seems to have as much faith in Bennett as Mike Brown and Flip Saunders did before him, which is to say very little. Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s easy to view his D-League request as a positive turning point in Bennett’s career—it shows initiative, a desire to try and jump-start his career.

Olynyk agrees: “I know Cory (Raptors guard Cory Joseph) did that when he was with San Antonio and that shows they want to get better, that they love the game and want to improve and have the opportunity to keep developing and keep growing as players”. Of course, Bennett could have benefited from a prolonged stint in the D-League two years ago, when things were going sour in Cleveland, but the organization didn’t want to concede that they might have made a mistake in their draft selection. The Cavaliers’ pride cost Bennett a chance to gain some valuable minutes and some valuable confidence.

Bennett’s time to impress upon coaches and GMs that he belongs in the NBA is running out—he knows this all too well. But Bennett remains positive throughout, despite all the pressure. “I surround myself with good people—good positive people” Bennett says. “I just keep focused, doing what I have to do everyday to get better”. Bennett certainly has the physical attributes to mold himself into a valuable rotation player—a guy who does the dirty work, crashing the boards, moving well in transition. “He’s a physical specimen” Olynyk says emphatically. “He’s strong, fast, can get up and down the floor, and he can jump out of the gym”

So are Bennett’s issues more mental than physical? Olynyk believes so: “Addressing the mental side is easier said than done” Olynyk says. “It’s easier to be on the outside looking in”. But I think he’s got what it takes. He’s just got to trust the process and know that it’s not going to happen overnight”.

For Bennett himself, however, his early career struggles are down to both physical and mental issues. “It’s not just one thing, it’s both” Bennett says candidly. When asked about his near-future goals Bennett doesn’t hesitate in responding: “Just to get better everyday” he says. “Like I said, it’s a learning experience going down there (the 905 Raptors) and it is a learning experience here. For the most part I’ve just got to take things day by day and work on things that will help me better myself in the future”.

Bennett still has a tough road ahead of him to gain the trust of NBA coaches and GMs and to prove he can make it in the pros, but his positive outlook is encouraging and as Olynyk emphasizes, success doesn’t happen overnight. “They say overnight success happens in like 5, 6, 10 years” Olynyk says with a chuckle. “It’s something that’s hard to grasp, but when you step back and take a look at the bigger picture he has all the tools”

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