Cleveland Cavaliers forward and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett will miss the next three weeks with a left patellar tendon strain, as first reported by Bob Finnan of The (Ohio) News-Herald and subsequently confirmed by the team. While the team established a three-week timeline in its announcement, Tom Withers of The Associated Press reports that the team "will likely take a cautious approach with Bennett, and it's possible he could be done for the year."
Bennett missed the Cavs' Feb. 28 game against the Utah Jazz due to soreness in his right knee, but it's the left knee that's proved troublesome now. He seemed bouncy enough during the Cavs' Saturday night meeting with the New York Knicks:
... but he only saw 7 1/2 minutes of floor time, checking out midway through the second quarter after scoring two points, notching one assist and committing one foul. The Knicks went onto win, 107-97, and Bennett went on to be examined by team physician Dr. Richard Parker, with an MRI uncovering the strain of the patellar tendon — which connects the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the shinbone — that will sideline him for at least the next 11 games. If Withers is correct, it might also put an end to what will go down in history as one of the more disappointing seasons of any No. 1 overall draft pick in recent NBA history.
As of Monday, Bennett ranks 18th among qualifying rookies in per-game scoring, 14th in per-game rebounding, dead last in field-goal percentage, and 24th out of 26 in Player Efficiency Rating. ("Qualifying" means "on pace to play 35 games or score 700 points.") Since the 1946-47 season, only 22 rookies have played more than 600 minutes, averaged less than 4.2 points and three rebounds per game, and shot less than 36 percent from the floor; seven were first-rounders in their respective drafts, including the immortal Nikoloz Tskitishvili, but only Bennett was the first player off the board in his. (The good news, though? One of them, Boston Celtics point guard K.C. Jones, went on to have a Hall of Fame career. All Bennett has to do now is be part of eight straight NBA championship teams.)
This, to put it mildly, is not what the Cavaliers had in mind when they tapped Bennett with the No. 1 selection in June's 2013 NBA draft. That Cleveland went that route surprised many observers; while he was considered a top prospect, the UNLV product profiled less as a dyed-in-the-wool NBA small forward than an offense-first, floor-stretching, small-ball power forward who seemed like an awkward fit in a Cleveland frontcourt that already featured 2011 lottery pick (and fellow Canadian) Tristan Thompson entrenched at the four spot. Some believed a potential defensive game-changer like power forward/center Nerlens Noel, a prospective right-away contributor at small forward like Otto Porter or an explosive two-way athlete like Victor Oladipo might have made more sense given the Cavs' construction. (To be fair, Noel has missed the entire season recovering from a torn left ACL, and Porter's barely sniffed the floor for the playoff-bound Washington Wizards after a hip injury scuttled his start and slotted him in firmly behind veterans Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster. Oladipo ... well, he's looking like a keeper for the Orlando Magic.)
Bennett's NBA career got off to a rocky start before his first pro season even began, as the combination of left shoulder surgery and issues related to asthma and sleep apnea contributed to conditioning problems that dogged him through the exhibition slate and into the regular season. Going 0 for 15 in his first four NBA games made Bennett persona non grata in Cleveland almost immediately; three weeks into his career, he was getting booed at Quicken Loans Arena.
Before long, with Bennett mired in the worst statistical start to a career of any No. 1 pick, many NBA observers began questioning whether the 20-year-old rookie would be better served moving from the end of Mike Brown's bench to the D-League for a spell to get some consistent run and have the opportunity to rebuild his fractured confidence. Bennett said he'd be open to the option, but the Cavs chose to keep him up with the big club, which was experiencing all kinds of other issues, too.
Eventually, and thankfully, the light did seem to at least flicker for Bennett. A 15-point, eight-rebound outing against the New Orleans Pelicans opened things up, and a career-first double-double against the Sacramento Kings showcased some of his promise as a still-very-raw prospect. Bennett wasn't setting the world on fire, but as the season wore on, he began to look a bit leaner, a bit quicker, a bit more confident in either stepping into his jumper or attacking defenders off the dribble. Over the first three months of the season, he averaged 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 11.2 minutes per game, shooting just 27.3 percent from the floor, 18.2 percent from 3-point range and 58.8 percent from the foul line. Since Feb. 1, though: 6.7 points and 3.9 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game — just under 15.5 points and nine boards per-36 — on 46.2/35/70 shooting splits. Not All-Star stuff, but leaps and bounds ahead of where he began the season; he was beginning to look like he belonged. Now, though, he finds himself shelved.
In the short term, head coach Brown will have to look elsewhere for the 16-plus minutes per game he's been playing Bennett over the last 20 games; perhaps he'll dust off Alonzo Gee, who has seen his minutes ebb of late, or just lean harder on starting small forward Luol Deng as he tries to end Cleveland's four-game skid and take another crack at pushing for the No. 8 seed onto which the reeling Atlanta Hawks are just barely holding. (The Cavs enter Monday 3 1/2 games back of the Hawks, who have lost six in a row and nine of 10.)
In the long term, though, if Bennett's unable to come back before the end of the season, at least he'd then have the benefit of entering his first pro offseason healthy enough to work out come May rather than recuperating from surgery, which could give him the chance to hit the ground running by Cleveland's next training camp. It wouldn't be the end that he or his employer would have preferred for his rookie season, but if it leads to a full offseason of work on picking up where he left off before ending up on the trainer's table, it could wind up being the start of something big.
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