Can former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett make it back to the NBA?

Yahoo Sports
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

LOS ANGELES – The Cleveland Cavaliers had tried everything.

It was more than halfway through the 2013-14 season, and Cavs rookie Anthony Bennett hadn’t scored more than nine points through 44 games.

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Head coach Mike Brown tried playing him behind guys like Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejão. He tried limiting his minutes, sometimes no more than two or five minutes a game. He tried sitting him for several games at a time.

The team tried having Bennett work more closely with coaches before and after practices. Teammates tried expressing words of encouragement to build Bennett’s confidence.

Still, the struggles persisted.

Bennett shot 35.6 percent from the field that season. He was poorly conditioned. He couldn’t defend. And he never played consistent minutes.

The Cavaliers had taken a chance on the 6-foot-8, 245-pound power forward. They drafted him No. 1 overall in a 2013 NBA draft that included Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, CJ McCollum and Victor Oladipo, but it was a talent pool that didn’t feature any clear-cut superstars at the time.

Bennett, then 20 years old, was supposed to give the Cavs another piece to add to Thompson and Kyrie Irving to help lift the team into contention after three straight losing seasons in the wake of LeBron James’ free-agent departure in 2010.

But four games into the season, he hadn’t scored a field goal. His only points came from a pair of free throws in his first game. He averaged 4.2 points and three rebounds for the year. He played in just one of the final 18 games. And he was traded to Minnesota after the season ended.

Bennett spent his next three seasons on three teams. He averaged 5.2 points in 57 games for the Timberwolves in 2014-15, then 1.5 points in 19 games for the Toronto Raptors in 2015-16, and five points in 23 games before he was waived by the Brooklyn Nets in 2017.

Teams questioned his desire. They wondered whether he had the drive to work when things got tough. He didn’t develop into the player he needed to be as the No. 1 pick, at least not quickly enough, and he was out of the league and termed a bust before age 25.

Perhaps that player everyone expected him to be is still there. Bennett’s made a name for himself in the G League in the past couple of years. He’s averaged career highs in points, rebounds and minutes.

Coaches have said the Brampton, Ontario, native’s story is not yet over. And in July, the Houston Rockets offered Bennett a non-guaranteed deal for the upcoming season.

His shot at redemption might be close, but he’ll need to show flashes of the player he was long before he ever donned an NBA jersey.

Things didn't go well for Anthony Bennett in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Things didn't go well for Anthony Bennett in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Bennett was a special player

In his younger days, Bennett was typically one of the most explosive players on the court.

He was a five-star recruit out of Findlay Prep High School in Henderson, Nevada. He played AAU basketball for CIA Bounce. He played for the Canadian National Team’s Under-16 and Under-17 teams in the FIBA World Championships and led Canada to two consecutive bronze medals.

He’d developed the reputation of being a naturally athletic, versatile offensive weapon who could rise up for a thunderous dunk or shoot from anywhere on the court.

“He was powerful,” said Mike Peck, Bennett’s coach at Findlay Prep. “He had great size from his body, his frame. And once he got with us, he was consistently in our lifting program. He put the strength on that frame. Just naturally, he was athletic.

“When he would finish sometimes, when he got a lane to the basket or when he was at the rim, it was heads-up. Look out.”

Bennett wasn’t in good playing shape when he arrived for his junior year at Findlay Prep after attending Mountain State Academy in Beckley, West Virginia. He spent most of that season on the bench, something Peck credited with setting him up for a standout senior year.

“Not playing much and watching games from the bench … sometimes that’s the best teacher and motivator there is,” Peck said. “[Players] don’t want to sit and watch games. They want to be out there playing. I think that probably motivated him. And … I think he saw and realized, ‘I need to step it up.’ And my guess is that’s what got him and put him in another gear and got his mind focused on what it needed to be, and he really took off.”

Despite his explosiveness on the court, Peck noticed Bennett’s level of conditioning was not where it needed to be.

“He was one of those guys that when he had time off, hey, you’re not one of those guys that’s just gifted in the area of conditioning where you can just take four days and sit on the couch,” he added. “You’re gonna have to do something. I’m not saying you gotta run 40-yard sprints for an hour and a half. But you gotta do something because your level of conditioning can go down quicker.”

Still, Bennett led the team to a 32-1 record and its third straight ESPN National High School Invitational Championship, and he grabbed the attention of schools around the country, including Florida, Oregon, Washington and UNLV.

It started out so well

There were less than two minutes left in a game against Cal early in the 2012-13 season.

Coach Dave Rice’s UNLV team led for most of the second half but trailed the Golden Bears by two points.

Bennett, a freshman, caught the ball on the baseline, faked a 3-point shot, then launched himself toward the basketball with his limbs stretched as far as his body would allow before slamming the ball through the hoop.

Rice still remembers the play. He still remembers Bennett’s 25-point performance that night.

“The bigger the game, the better he played,” Rice said. “… I walked off the court after we’d won that night – and I already knew we had a special player – but it was very obvious that he was different, that he had a very, very bright future.”

Bennett made what Rice described as “momentum-changing plays” at UNLV. Though he only coached him for one year, Rice admired Bennett’s humility, his maturity and his team-first attitude.

He added that Bennett never missed a game at UNLV. He did everything coaches asked him to do, and he stayed after practice to get extra work in.

“He was the kind of guy you want on your college team every year because he was so talented,” Rice said. “He was a top-10 player coming out of high school. He would go on to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. And yet, he was all about the team … and he was easy to coach because he had a great basketball IQ, and he wanted to win. He wanted to be part of it, but he wanted his team to share in it. He always wanted to include everyone.”

Rice sat next to Bennett the day he officially declared for the draft in 2013. They both wore UNLV polo shirts to the news conference – Rice was in red, Bennett sat to his right in black.

Bennett made little effort to hide his emotions that day. He held his face in the palm of his right hand before raising his face to address reporters.

“I just want to thank all of you for coming out. Thank you for all the support this year,” he said. “But as of today, I’m here to announce that I’m declaring for the 2013 NBA draft. I know it’s not gonna be easy, but I’m ready to learn and work hard.”

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5152/" data-ylk="slk:Anthony Bennett">Anthony Bennett</a> last played in the NBA with the Nets in 2017. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Anthony Bennett last played in the NBA with the Nets in 2017. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

How did it go wrong?

CJ Miles had only seen a few of Bennett’s games at UNLV before Cleveland drafted him.

“He was a monster,” said Miles, who was starting his second season with the Cavs when Bennett joined the team. “At that time, this is when the league was really starting to turn towards that three and four position, and definitely stretch fours and smaller guys.

“He was breaking the mold. He was big enough, strong enough and skillful enough to be right in that spot. He was a super athlete at this time.”

Much like other NBA fans who were tuning in to Cavs games to see what the No. 1 pick would do, Miles was focused on Bennett.

He watched him struggle in areas he’d excelled in when he was younger.

“He missed a free throw, and he kind of put his head down because he had been struggling,” Miles said of one of Bennett’s first NBA games. “And I told him, ‘It’s the same game you’ve been playing. It’s the same skill set you have that got you here,’ and just tried to remind him that.”

Bennett’s inability to adjust to this new level of basketball went hand in hand with the perception that he didn’t have the desire to improve.

Miles watched Bennett play with drooping shoulders, a lowered head and an indecipherable expression on his face.

Bennett had always been quiet and unassuming. Even Peck noticed it when Bennett was younger. He wasn’t a conversational person. He rarely engaged in a lot of dialogue.

“From the outside ... if you’re struggling, and you’re not showing emotion either, it’s really hard because now it’s like, ‘He must not want to get better,’ or, ‘He must not want it,’” Miles said. “It’s easy to look at it that way because his demeanor is … he’s not showing emotion. I don’t think anybody ever looks at it from that route.

“They just look at it like, ‘He should be fired up.’ And some people aren’t built like that. That’s just not how they do things. Granted, he was like any young kid. He had to learn how to work.”

Can Bennett make it back to the NBA?

Coach Brian Adams received an email before the beginning of the season last year that said his Agua Caliente Clippers (the Los Angeles Clippers’ G League affiliate) would trade for Bennett’s rights for the upcoming season.

Adams, previously a coaching associate for the Clippers, said he was nervous before meeting Bennett.

He’d seen his highlights with the Maine Red Claws the previous year, where he’d averaged 16 points and 7.6 rebounds, but he knew little about the type of person and player Bennett was until the season started.

“He was open to whatever it took,” Adams said of coaching Bennett.

Bennett was in good shape and showed no signs of poor work ethic when he joined the team in Ontario, California, Adams said.

He spent hours in the gym throughout the season – so many that he had to be told to leave at times.

He showed he could still be the effective shooter he once was. Against the Austin Spurs early in the season, he scored 36 points, knocking down eight 3-pointers and missing just one of 13 free throw attempts.

He developed a consistent pre- and post-workout routine that included a warmup and movement drills, followed by a series of midrange jumpers and 3-pointers.

Bennett dealt with a couple of knee injuries in the G League, and his health has been an issue throughout his career. But the more time Adams spent with Bennett, the more he felt some of the previous criticisms were based on misconceptions.

“He’s a quiet kid that wants to be good,” he said. “He wants to be a good NBA player.”

Bennett’s been described as relatively undersized at 6-8, but he fits the mold of the new-age NBA big man. Perhaps his recently elevated game and ability to stretch the floor will be enough to resurrect his NBA career with Houston, which opens training camp at the end of the month.

Peck’s message to him is to know his role on a Houston team that already has offensive weapons in James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Adams’ advice is to forget the past and the pressure of being the No.1 pick.

And Rice is simply proud of the work Bennett’s put in to get himself to this point.

“I’ve told people for two or three years that he’s gonna have another opportunity,” Rice said. “And it’s gonna work.”

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