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Anthony Bennett’s breakthrough night could be a sign of things to come, if Cleveland complies

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Anthony Bennett backs one down in his breakout night (Getty Images)

The Cleveland Cavaliers did not look good on Tuesday night. From the team’s scattershot and silent defense, to an offense seemingly comprised solely of make ‘em ups, to the glaring absence of Austin Carr’s retired jersey in the rafters, Mike Brown’s unit looked completely out of sorts in a 100-89 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, a game featuring a score that wasn’t representative of how the game looked. It was worse than an 11-point loss.

One obvious standout emerged for Cleveland, though. In a season filled with an 0-16 start to the season from the floor, a benching, rumors of a D-League “demotion” (that many say would help his prospects) and a 1.1 Player Efficiency Rating (second to last in the league, entering Tuesday), Cavs rookie Anthony Bennett busted out with what is by far his finest game of the season in the loss. Bennett played most of the second half and totaled 15 points on 5-10 shooting. Playing 31 minutes, Anthony grabbed eight rebounds and only turned the ball over once. His PER is up to 2.3.

The points total exceeds the amount of points Bennett has contributed in the 2014 calendar year. The minutes total represented the first time Bennett has played more than 20 in a contest. It was the most action Bennett had seen since that 20-minute outing, one that saw the rookie miss eight of 11 shots in a 29-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second week of the season. Needless to say, it was a career night.

In a career that we hope hasn’t been irreversibly spoiled by the Cavaliers’ handling of their young prospect, one that was selected tops overall in last season’s draft.

Even with the loss at his team’s feet, Bennett was understandably more enthused following the game than after most others in this dreary, dreadful 16-29 season for the Cavaliers. After the contest, Cavaliers coach Mike Brown praised his rookie’s ability to “stay ready when your number is called,” and it was obvious throughout the second half that the team was making an effort to go to the young man – possibly in preparation for a nationally televised Thursday night game against the New York Knicks, one that could serve as an embarrassment for two teams that were expected to compete for a playoff berth; and one in Cleveland that has been afforded four lottery picks over the last three drafts, including two number ones.

Bennett looked good, though. It wasn’t the sort of dominant game that you’d expect every so often from a top overall pick (even a 19-year old one in a terrible draft), so for those expecting Bennett to play as Anthony Davis (the top overall pick prior to Bennett’s draft, one who contributed a brilliant 30-point, eight-block, seven-rebound and zero-turnover game against Cleveland on Tuesday) often did in his own rookie season, but it was good enough to remind you of who Anthony Bennett is.

He’s a young prospect, coming off of a major shoulder injury, who should be a sophomore in college. A top five lock in a legendarily poor NBA draft that was taken first overall, in a move that was a surprise but probably not worth criticism considering Bennett’s talent and size. Anthony Bennett is not your typical rookie, in so many ways.

Working at center alongside Tristan Thompson and at power forward alongside second-year big man Henry Sims, Bennett still slipped many screens and was aggressive in heading to the rim. At times he was confused on whether or not to slip the pick to set up for a perimeter shot or roll to the rim, and this contributed to poor spacing on the strong side with Sims. Bennett made 2-3 three-pointers (and missed another that didn’t count at the third quarter buzzer), and overall he reminded us of what has been clear since the start of the season:

Anthony Bennett needs to play power forward. Or undersized center, in a pinch. He needs minutes, and plenty of them. He can’t play small forward, and he shouldn’t be coming off the bench for cameo appearances with all eyes on him.

Cleveland’s coaching staff (because the front office, hesitant to send him to the D-League, won’t help in this regard) has to understand this, even with the “make the playoffs or else” mandate. The defense was terrible with Bennett out there on Tuesday night, but it was terrible in the stretches just before that, time with starters that allowed NOLA to build a big lead. The kid has to play, or you’re going to lose him. No amount of preparedness for “your number” being called can make up for these sorts of things.

Mike Brown isn’t wrong when he points out that Cleveland’s “competitive spirit is non-existent,” but some of this has to be attributed to the coaching staff – one that also features former head and interim coaches in Bernie Bickerstaff and Jim Boylan, and highly regarded longtime assistants Igor Kokoskov and Jamahl Mosley. We don’t bring these names up as a way of suggesting that Brown be fired by the Cavs for the second time in three and a half years, we bring this up to point out the wealth of knowledge on that team’s bench. There’s no excuse for the coaches to be coaching this way, and for the players to be playing this way.

Bennett hasn’t been properly utilized in the slightest. Kyrie Irving has tailed off. Dion Waiters still alternates good possessions with terrible ones. New addition Luol Deng is being treated like J.J. Redick, instead of the slasher that he is. Anderson Varejao sat out on Tuesday, but he wasn’t the answer to these problems. The competitive spirit may be lacking, but there’s quite a bit of blame to go around here.

It’s not the most pressing concern in Cleveland, especially not with Austin Carr’s jersey still floating out there, but Bennett has to play. He has to get into shape, he has to develop confidence, and he has start scoring the damn ball for a team that needs a player with versatile offensive gifts like Bennett’s. Mock the selection all you want, but Anthony Bennett has “top overall pick”-talent. At least for that awful 2013 NBA draft.

Tuesday was a good start, but where it goes from there is anyone’s guess. Typical confusion, as is the custom for the Cavaliers.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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