The narrative of Anthony Bennett’s rookie season was never fair. As the top choice of a historically weak draft that was bothered by multiple health maladies before and during his debut campaign, the odds were always stacked against him to meet expectations. That Bennett was playing for a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise at the height of its longstanding ineptitude only further darkened his basketball reality.
But it’s always easier for the public to glean analysis from above the surface than beneath it. Bennett opened 2013-2014 in truly awful fashion, missing his first 15 shots before getting off the snide by going 1-5 against the Milwaukee Bucks in Cleveland’s fifth game of the season. By the time December began and the 20 year-old Bennett was barely getting off the bench for one of the league’s worst teams, his story was written: Bennett was a bust of epic proportions who might not even deserve a place in the NBA, let alone the distinction of being its number one draft pick.
The problem is that take lacked any context whatsoever. Don’t get us wrong – Bennett had a dreadful rookie year by almost any standard, a fact due as much to his alarming on-court apathy as any health or organizational factor.
Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders knows that, but he also understands the aspects beyond Bennett’s control that contributed to such wholesale rookie struggles. And despite the effort, efficiency, awareness, and physical concerns that so plagued Bennett’s debut, Saunders still thinks the UNLV product will grow into a valuable player for the ‘Wolves.
From Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune:
“He has good potential,” said the Wolves president and coach. “He played very well this summer, was one of the better big men really at Vegas at the Summer League…”
“You look at him and he was drafted, had shoulder surgery, did not practice at all during the summertime, missed training camp, came in during the year and was diagnosed with sleep apnea and other things,” Saunders said. “He has lost 25 pounds, he’s working hard to get in shape. He’s an NBA player. He’s a guy that’s going to be a rotation-type player.”
It bears mentioning that coach-speak often rules the day when it comes to recently acquired players. And given the unique and unenviable circumstances that accompanied Bennett’s arrival, Saunders has extra cause to preach optimism before he – or Andrew Wiggins and Thaddeus Young, for that matter – actually takes the court for the Timberwolves.
Saunders’ contention that Bennett played “very well” and “was one of the better big man” at Las Vegas Summer League is actually an example of what we’re discussing. To those that believed the ridiculous notion that Bennett wasn’t worthy of a NBA roster spot, Bennett no doubt looked really good in Vegas. He was noticeably thinner than he was during the regular season, showed nice touch from the perimeter, and ran the floor in transition for finishes above the rim.
But working from the more realistic and less knee-jerk opinion of Bennett’s rookie year, his play in Vegas merely confirmed what we already knew – that Bennett is talented but far from being a consistently impactful presence against legitimate NBA competition. He still needs to get in better shape, exercise smarter shot-selection, gain additional understanding of team concepts, and learn to value every possession on both ends of the floor.
And all of that’s fine! It takes young, raw prospects time to develop into worthwhile players, especially when they’re faced with extenuating circumstances like Bennett’s. That’s where Saunders’ words should ease the doubt ‘Wolves fans have of Bennett, too.
A shoulder injury that kept him from a majority of training camp. A midseason diagnosis of sleep apnea. The effects of getting your NBA feet wet with a fracturing team. The adjustment from playing in the Mountain West to the best league in the world. The fact that being a number one pick – in any draft, let alone one of such poor caliber – means nothing once the game tips-off.
All of the above and even more contributed to Bennett’s horrible rookie season and the public perception of it. And while we weren’t as impressed with his summer performance as others, Bennett still flashed more than enough ability to make Saunders’ sentiments believable.
Wiggins is the prize of trading Kevin Love and Young the bonus; their short- and long- term influence will likely trump Bennett’s. But that hardly makes his presence and development unimportant for the Timberwolves, and Saunders’ obvious, public confidence in that notion will be key to Bennett making good on his coach’s faith.
What do you think?
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