"Worst ever? You see, the people you're talking to -- the guys that are saying that; They don't know him. They don't know his character. They don't know how hard he works. "
That's the response I got from Cleveland Cavaliers' radio analyst Jim Chones when I mentioned a few of the things I had seen printed about Anthony Bennett possibly being the worst #1 pick ever taken. At the time, I didn't really know how to take it. Bennett wasn't yet the slimmer player that we saw after the All Star break. He hadn't registered any double doubles, or elicited any promises to tattoo one's face. He was mired in one of the worst rookie seasons we have ever seen.
I don't think I need to go into a ton of stats or detail on how bad the year was for him. He shot 35% from the field and 24% from three. Those are the positive stats from the campaign. The lowlights were pretty low: The injury in the offseason. The weight. No training camp. The long shooting slump to start the season. The missed dunks. Famously kind of giving up, in the middle of a win. It wasn't pretty. It was historically awful.
Even given all of the lowlights, it would be pretty disingenuous to say that's the proper projection for Bennett's career. Especially today, there is a trend of forming opinions on what a player can or cannot accomplish in an instant. Dwyane Wade, for example, took about a week to go from rested X factor that set Miami apart to a decrepit old man shouldering the blame of the Heat's (I will never say HEAT) finals loss. Bennett was the #1 pick for a reason, and while it was pretty surprising to a lot of people, including myself, it wasn't a ridiculous long shot. In polling NBA GM's, Chad Ford of ESPN gathered that just about everybody had the same top 6 players in varying orders. Anthony Bennett was among that group.
Every year, Ford breaks the draft down into tiers based on that GM feedback. Last year, there wasn't a single player in tier 1, which is described as "Surefire All Stars and Franchise players". Tier 2 in his column is described as "Potential All Stars" and GM's and scouts did not put a single player in that tier either. Then Tier 3:
Otto Porter Jr.
Note: These are the top six guys in the draft and one of the few places that you'll find consensus. While there are a few exceptions, there's a good chance that these six players will be the first six to hear their names called on draft night. Teams have these six ordered differently depending on need or whether they are looking for immediate help or upside, but every team I spoke with had these six as their top six in some order."
So again, there was a reason that Bennett was taken first. He wasn't exactly Renaldo Balkman sneaking up out of nowhere. GM's and scouts ranked him among that top group. This isn't to say "SEE HE IS BETTER" it's just a tool to adjust our focus and view Bennett as a struggling equal as opposed to under-talented reach.
What is that talent though? Obviously, NBA GM's didn't peg him an All-Star. But while the NBA is a stars league, it's not a "Stars Only" league. Bennett is capable of helping, even if he never lives up to the title of "#1 draft pick". He's got huge hands and a massive frame. He can shoot it pretty well and he can put the ball on the floor and attack. After so much consternation, frustration, and failure last year, he finally started to show those things. We saw him sprinting the floor and making hard cuts that led to massive slams. We saw him sealing smaller players in the post. We saw him making shots. We saw him using his massive arms to pull down rebounds and alter shots. The NBA is full of talented players that have washed out. There is not guarantee that Bennett will make it, but showing that talent is important. For our confidence, and his. Knowing you have the talent is the first step.
This summer will end up being huge for Bennett. Last year his work ethic and character were maligned as much as any Cavs player I've seen. Some things weren't his fault -- like being shut down for a shoulder injury. Some things were and he made more than his fair share of mistakes. He's a good kid and, to his credit he did a good job of changing his body during the season last year. The need to keep that momentum going and show that he is committed to doing what needs done cannot be understated. So far, he has held up his end of that bargain:
Anthony isn't exactly in the mold of Dion Waiters, who spent his offseason posting every workout, and that's just fine. Steve Kyler said he looks good, as we can see above, and a friend of mine who spends a lot of his offseasons at Impact Basketball out in Vegas has said Bennett is out there working his tail off. He's in great shape, at a time when a lot of guys are taking it easy. Since he was behind that 8-ball to start his career, that is a great sign.
I don't know what Bennett projects to be in the longterm. What I do know is that he can be valuable. The flashes we saw of a 6'8 power forward with 7'2 arms that can beat most of the other guys down the floor on a break have me hopeful for his future in this league. He has some nastiness to him, and much like I said before the season, he probably just needs to keep it simple. Focus on putting his massive frame to use and setting hard screens, finding dead space on the floor to shoot, drawing slower guys onto him and putting it on the floor, and making sure to keep moving. Mike Brown's offense didn't do him or anyone else many favors, but David Blatt promises to bring more floor spacing, good movement, and plenty of passing. If that's the case, Bennett will have a real chance to shine, especially if his jumper is falling. Maybe he won't be as shiny as other #1 picks, but remember -- he was never really projected to be.
Jim Chones raved to me about Bennett's connection with his mother and his desire to succeed for her. He went on and on about his character and the work he'd been putting in during practices. He told me that after Kyrie Irving, Bennett might be the most skilled player on the team based on all things he's seen him do on the practice court. Others are telling us how hard he's working this offseason. If there is one thing that resonates in Cleveland, it's a comeback story. If Anthony Bennett keeps his head down and keeps working, and starts showing some of that talent, we could have a really good one on our hands. Everybody knows that this year's #1 pick will be extremely important to the Cavs. But there's still a chance that last year's #1 pick will be too.