NEW YORK — The Cleveland Cavaliers surprised the NBA world by selecting UNLV forward Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft on Thursday, capping several days of swirling speculation about the direction in which owner Dan Gilbert's franchise would go by choosing a talented scoring prospect that few had projected to go off the board first overall.
"I'm speechless right now," Bennett beamed to ESPN's Shane Battier after his selection. "I don't even know what to say."
Neither did the crowd in attendance at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, who reacted with what might fairly be described as shock.
Bennett starred as a freshman in the Mountain West Conference, averaging 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for coach Dave Rice and establishing himself as one of the most productive forwards in the NCAA and one of the premier prospects in the 2013 draft class. How he'll slot in defensively alongside frontcourt mates Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson remains to be seen — Bennett was cited by the DraftExpress analysis team of Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz as a player who often jogged on D, relaxed in his defensive stance, exercised poor fundamentals and seemed to be in less-than-prime condition — but his finishing ability around the rim and outside stroke (37.5 percent from 3-point range in his lone season in Vegas) have led many to view him as a strong stretch-four prospect at the next level.
Forwards with the ability to not only win one-on-one matchups on the interior for buckets, but also step out on the floor and threaten a defense with perimeter jumpers can provide spacing for fellow post players on the interior (like, perhaps, incumbent forward/center and fellow Canadian Thompson) or driving lanes for wing penetrators (like, for example, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and rising sophomore shooting guard Dion Waiters), are rare, and in great demand in today's NBA.
"I can contribute at the four, the three," Bennett told reporters after his selection. "There's still things I need to work on, but I feel like I'm a great teammate, unselfish, and I can just fit in right away."
Bennett said he didn't know he was going to be the No. 1 overall pick until he heard his name called.
"I'm just as surprised as everybody else," he said. "I didn't really have any idea of who's going No. 1 or who's going No. 2 — I heard everything was up for grabs. I'm just real happy, glad that i have this opportunity, and I've just got to thank God for everything."
While top recruit and Kansas commit Andrew Wiggins has drawn plenty of coverage and accolades as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, it's the 20-year-old Bennett who becomes the first Canadian ever chosen first overall in the annual selection.
"It's just crazy — I made history," he said. "I can't really complain about that, you know?"