Heading into the 2014-15 NBA season, many of us figured Anthony Bennett would perform significantly better than he did during his disappointing rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thus far, the 2013 draft's No. 1 pick has lived up to those expectations, and to hear him tell it, he's looking better at least in part because he's seeing better.
The 21-year-old Toronto native, who was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the summer blockbuster headlined by All-Star power forward Kevin Love and 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, underwent a number of changes in the offseason following a dismal rookie campaign short-circuited by injury, fitness issues, ice-cold shooting and "biggest bust ever" talk. He adopted a strict diet and went through weeks of brutal "chameleon training" to drop some of the weight that he struggled to carry around on the court. He had surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids, a procedure aimed at helping him breathe easier on the court and get more restful, restorative sleep.
Bennett also had LASIK surgery to correct his eyesight — you might remember seeing him in goggles during the Wolves' preseason slate, wearing them to protect his recovering peepers — following in the footsteps of players like Rudy Gay in pursuit of clearer vision on the court. To hear Bennett tell it to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, the vision problems were worse than any of us might have realized:
Bennett has never worn contacts. Can’t put them in his eyes. How bad was his vision before?
“You see that white board?” Bennett said recently, pointing to a board no more than 10 feet away. “Last year, I couldn’t read the writing on it.”
And during games?
“Anything far, I couldn’t really see,” Bennett said. “I couldn’t see the people in the stands. Now I can see the scoreboard. I can see what plays coach wants to run.” [...]
“Last year I felt like I was always playing catch-up,” Bennett said. “This year, it feels a lot different.”
Well, yeah. As if it's not difficult enough to live up to the pressure associated with being the first overall pick in the draft, having to get healthy and in shape after missing several months recovering from rotator cuff surgery, going from playing Mountain West Conference competition to battling NBA threes and fours every night, learning how to be a professional at 20 years old and figuring out how to get your head above water after a terrible start to your career, imagine trying to do it all without being able to see things just a few feet in front of your face. (Suddenly, Bennett's rookie shooting marks — 35.6 percent from the field, 24.5 percent from 3-point land — make a bit more sense.)
After such a dramatic physical overhaul this summer — to say nothing of the change in role and reduction in pressure that comes with going from a place where he was expected to help lead the charge back to the playoffs to one where he's viewed as just a complementary piece in the early stages of a rebuild — Bennett has looked in the early going like an entirely different player. Whereas former Cavs coach Mike Brown at times shifted Bennett to small forward and even to the five in small lineups last season, Wolves boss Flip Saunders has firmly entrenched the sophomore as Minnesota's backup power forward behind offseason acquisition Thaddeus Young, and encouraged him — offensive efficiency charts be damned! — to take a step in from the deep end of the pool so he can get more comfortable splashing around on the interior.
“The first thing I said to him was there are two things you are not going to do: You’re not going to play small forward and you are not going to shoot threes,” Saunders told Mannix.
The predilection toward long twos has been something of a staple of Saunders' offenses for years, and while there's plenty of debate as to just how healthy that is, Bennett's gotten off to a strong start acting as a midrange release valve, making 10 of his first 18 tries between 10 feet out and the 3-point line, according to Basketball-Reference.com's shot charts.
He's not banging on the inside much yet, due in part to playing all 60 of his minutes through four games alongside either Nikola Pekovic or Gorgui Dieng. But he has grabbed 23.4 percent of available defensive rebounds during his floor time, a sizable step up from last season, he's made some small steps toward improvement on the defensive end, and he's shown flashes of being able to use that slimmed-down physique and increased explosiveness to wreak havoc in the paint, as he did for his lone basket during the Wolves' Wednesday road win over the Brooklyn Nets:
It's a level of assertiveness and confidence that Bennett only showed on rare occasions last season, evidence suggesting that all those changes — of scenery, of work habits, of the fundamental way his body works — are serving him well thus far.
"It's a fresh start," Bennett recently told Rolling Stone's Seerat Sohi. "God gave me an opportunity. A new team, new coaching staff, new players, so I just gotta go out there and play hard. Just being around these guys, just fighting everyday. It's gonna make it a lot better."
The former UNLV standout is still a long way from validating this draft status or even earning starter's minutes on a Wolves squad that, encouraging early start aside, is still expected to rank among the West's worst this season. But a redemption story has to start somewhere, and after a trainwreck introduction to the NBA, 7.3 points on 56.5 percent shooting and three rebounds in 15 minutes per game isn't the worst place in the world for things to begin — especially considering how much room the still-just-21-year-old Bennett has to grow.
"He's like a canvas that hasn't been painted yet," Saunders told FOX Sports North's Phil Ervin last month.
It will take a while for the piece to be finished, of course. If nothing else, though, it's comforting to know that now Bennett will actually be able to see it.
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