Anthony Bennett's rookie season could have gone worse. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward could have been framed for a murder he didn't commit, for one thing, or forced to play a deadly yearlong game of cat-and-mouse with a deranged genius bent on world domination; either of those things would have been way worse than just struggling to perform up to the expectations that come with being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Once you eliminate the plotlines of potential suspense/thriller films, though, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which the former UNLV product's 2013-14 campaign could have been more diametrically opposed to the way he and his new employers drew it up. Bennett began his professional career behind the 8-ball, after predraft surgery to repair a torn left rotator cuff not only knocked him out of summer league and the Cavs' offseason program, but also left him unable to resume five-on-five work until a month and a half before the start of the season. He had a hard time getting in shape during Cleveland's exhibition slate and couldn't hit the broad side of the barn after the regular season began; before long, he was hearing boos at home, sparking debates about the prospective merits of a D-League stint, and being tabbed as perhaps the biggest No. 1 pick bust of all time ... all before he could legally buy beer. (In the States, that is; you can purchase a Molson free and clear at 18 in Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, and 19 elsewhere in Bennett's native land of Canada.)
Things got better as the season wore on, with the 6-foot-8 Bennett turning in some performances that reminded us why Cleveland rolled the dice on him; a March knee injury effectively ended his season, but his marked post-All-Star-break improvement bought him a little bit of breathing room as he entered his first full proper NBA offseason. There was just one problem, though — Bennett still couldn't really breathe, thanks to the asthma and sleep apnea that had compounded his conditioning problems and often left him, as Grantland's Jason Concepcion once put it, with his "hands on hips, shoulders rolled, head down, mouth-breathing like a freshly hooked bass."
A newly slimmed down Bennett didn't have the same problems while playing for the Cavs' Las Vegas summer league team earlier this month, and as Jessica Camerato of Basketball Insiders explains, there's a reason for that:
In May, Bennett underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to help improve his sleep apnea. As a result, Bennett, who also has asthma, has found it easier to breathe while playing basketball following the operation.
“Since [having] my tonsils out, my adenoids, I have a lot more room to breathe,” Bennett said during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “It was hard, definitely, with my tonsils in. I feel like taking them out was a huge step.” [...]
Of the many factors that played a role in his disappointing season, there were instances when he felt his breathing hindered him on the court.
“It acted up at times,” Bennett said. “There’d be times I was playing good, I wouldn’t really notice it. And then there’d be other times where it was real hard to breathe. But I just tried to push through it and do the best I can.”
Sleep apnea repeatedly knocks you out of deep sleep, reducing the quality of your sleep and increasing fatigue. Given what we know about how important sleep, rest and recovery are for athletes' performance, it stands to reason that doing whatever possible to nip sleep apnea in the bud — including losing weight, something with which Bennett has had issues dating back to his prep days, but one he seems to be addressing now — would help Bennett get and stay invigorated, both on and off the court.
It's still too early to tell whether the surgical intervention and improved conditioning will pay dividends against top-flight competition; while Bennett's new look drew attention in Vegas, neither his per-game summer league marks (13.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, three turnovers) nor his shooting splits (42.6 percent from the floor, 25 percent from 3-point range, 60 percent from the foul line) were eye-popping. Perhaps the most important number from Bennett's summer league stint, though, was the 29.8 minutes per game he played — more than twice his average burn in 52 appearances last season — while routinely seeming quicker on his feet and without regularly looking gassed. That, in and of itself, seems like a promising development.
It remains to be seen how large an on-court role Bennett will have in his sophomore season — or, for that matter, which team he'll be playing for in his second pro campaign. But after a disastrous opening to his NBA career, just being able to take some deep breaths and relax figures to represent a pretty significant step toward Bennett being able to fulfill his estimable professional promise.
"I'm having a lot of fun," Bennett said at summer league, according to CBSSports.com's James Herbert. "I'm healthy [and] I feel like conditioning-wise I'm where I'm supposed to be at. I could be a lot better."
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