After arguably the worst start to a career of any No. 1 pick in NBA history, forward Anthony Bennett seems to have finally begun to find his footing in the big leagues, giving the Cleveland Cavaliers and their fans more frequent glimpses of the form that prompted the team to make him a somewhat surprising first selection in the 2013 NBA draft this past summer. The UNLV product had his best outing to date on Tuesday night, showcasing his inside-outside game and looking, from start to finish, like he belongs.
NBA TV's "The Starters" broke down Bennett's big night:
It wasn't a perfect night — he missed five free throws in nine tries, his on- and off-ball defense still needs work, etc. — but Bennett took his biggest step forward to date, scoring a career-high 19 points on 6 for 9 shooting, including a perfect 3 for 3 mark from 3-point land, to go with a career-high 10 rebounds to post his first double-double in Cleveland's 109-99 home win over a visiting Sacramento Kings team that had embarrassed the Cavs by 44 in California last month.
Bennett battled inside, shot with confidence outside, looked quick off the bounce and bothered multiple Kings with his long arms on defense. The shoulder-surgery-and-asthma-aided conditioning problems and career-opening oh-fer, the home-court boos and D-League discussion ... it all went away on Tuesday night, at least for a little while, as Bennett looked less like a vessel for fan frustration at a season gone wrong or yet another data point in the mounting case against Cleveland's front office and ownership, and more like a 20-year-old with skills who's enjoying himself for the first time since he left college. From Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
“I’ve been saying this all along: He can play,” Mike Brown said. “He’s just now getting to be who you will see going forward in the future.” [...]
“I was just having fun,” Bennett said. “We’re winning, we’re playing good defense, that shot was a huge relief for me.”
And the last time he had fun on a basketball court?
“I don’t remember,” he said. “But today was definitely one of those days.”
He's had a few more of them of late, starting with a 15-point, eight-rebound performance that made us wonder if the lights had come on for the rook (and was promptly followed by a rough night on national TV against the New York Knicks). Over Bennett's last eight games, he's averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21.5 minutes per game (about 15.7 points and 8.5 boards per 36 minutes) while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from long distance, with four double-digit scoring outings during that stretch; he hadn't had any in his first 32 pro games.
The Canadian forward has posted an effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) of 50.9 percent during this eight-game span, better than the league average of 49.7 percent. His True Shooting percentage (which also factors in the value of free throws) of 55.4 percent would rank seventh among first-year players if maintained over the course of the full season.
Bennett's also seemed a bit more comfortable of late fitting in offensively alongside Cleveland's top players in small-ball lineups where he joins Tristan Thompson up front alongside Luol Deng on the wing and Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters in the backcourt. The sample's small, but in 29 shared minutes of floor time spread over six games, that five-man unit has scored at a rate that would top the league's best offenses, according to NBA.com's stat tool. (They've also allowed opponents to score at a near-incomprehensible 149.3 points-per-100-possessions clip, but hey, we're accentuating the positive here.)
Bennett's 44.4 percent mark from the floor over the past eight games isn't exactly lights out, but his shooting accuracy has improved from virtually every area of the court, and especially near the rim, as laid out by Jacob Rosen of Waiting for Next Year:
Eight comparatively decent games don't make a career, of course, but Bennett's arrow seems to be trending north at long last, and his fellow Cavs seem excited about what that might mean for a team that's won three straight since the firing of general manager Chris Grant. From Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"He played a heck of a game tonight," Kyrie Irving said. "It was awesome. I was a fan."
Added Luol Deng, who led the Cavs with 22 points, "He's going to get it. These kind of games are going to come more often." [...]
"You're starting to see a little bit of what we see in practice and the reason why we drafted him," [Brown] said. "He's a talented young man, and he's starting to come to life a little bit here. He's even better than what you saw tonight. You'll see in time.
"He can play. It was unfortunate that he was hurt. It was unfortunate that he didn't play in summer league. It's part of being a young, young rookie and experiencing some things. He got himself right. He's just now starting to be who you're going to see a lot of in the future. It's not anything that happened overnight, nor is it one or two things. He's a good basketball player. He can pass it. He can shoot it short range, he can shoot it long range, he can run the floor, he can finish in traffic, he can rebound. Height-wise he might not be 6-10 or 6-11 but he's long and he's strong. For a young guy, he's got a good feel. He's only going to get better."
He's still got a long way to go if he's to dodge the all-time-bust tag, as Bullets Forever helpfully noted:
... but just getting that first double-double under his belt's a good start, and a cause for (at least minor) celebration among Clevelanders who could use some sunny sporting news these days.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, you can check out full highlights of Bennett's double-double, thanks to Dawk Ins.
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