Flip Saunders sees Anthony Bennett as a rotation player for Minnesota

Eric Freeman
August 26, 2014
Irving scores 31, leads Cavaliers past Thunder
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Anthony Bennett (15) reaches for the ball in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4) during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. Cleveland won 114-104. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

While top pick Andrew Wiggins was the obvious gem of the Minnesota Timberwolves' return in the now-official deal that sent Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft stands as another notable addition to the roster. The 21-year-old forward endured a very disappointing rookie year with the Cavs, posting a 6.9 PER that ranks as the worst among first-overall selections in the last 24 years, and that fact alone would seem to make his future success a longshot. But Bennett showed a few signs of improvement over the last few months of the season, particularly when playing at his preferred position of power forward, and still has enough ability as a scorer and rebounder to suggest he could carve out a place on a team in need of any help it can get — like, say, one that just traded its franchise player.

There are no assurances that Bennett will contribute to the Wolves and prove that they got several decent players for Love. Nevertheless, head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders is saying all the right things about Bennett's ability and the issues that could have kept him from fulfilling his potential as a rookie. From Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune (via PBT):

“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 is not news that the head coach of any team would get optimistic about a new addition, and it's even less surprising that he'd do it when he's also the team's key personnel man. If you read Hartman's full article, you'll also see that Saunders referred to combo forward and weekend addition Thaddeus Young as a borderline All-Star, which is at least one level above his not-inconsiderable value. When things aren't looking so great for the coming season, the people in charge do their best to convince fans that there are reasons to be positive.

Yet there's no reason to assume Saunders doesn't actually believe this assessment of Bennett to be true, because there really are many reasons not to right him off after just one complicated year. These comments on Bennett's potential are accurate, but there are other points in his favor, including undergoing offseason surgery to improve his breathing issues, simply getting a year away from the expectations of being a top pick, and not playing for a Cavs team that dealt with all sorts of dysfunction in 2013-14 after expecting to challenge for a playoff spot. I'm not sure it was smart for Saunders to say that Bennett will be a functional NBA player, because that's not the case right now, but it wouldn't be a public relations ploy to suggest that the Wolves see him as someone who fits their long-term goals.

From another point of view, Bennett's move needn't be considered in terms of what he gives the Wolves, because it's possible that a trade will improve his game irrespective of any other offseason changes or improvements. A player who disappoints as a rookie carries more expectations with the team that drafted him than with any other, if only because fans tend to judge everyone based on the terms that placed him on that roster no matter when it occurred. In Minnesota, Bennett is a secondary part of a major trade — he's a guy who could turn into a solid rotation player, not a looming bust who was drafted ahead of a Rookie of the Year and various players who for all we know could go on to make All-Star teams.

If Cavs GM David Griffin had said that Bennett could be a solid rotation player, he'd be managing expectations for a fan base that expected much more just a year ago. When Saunders said the same thing, he was being a little too optimistic. That difference could be what helps Bennett reach a manageable future.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!