The Cleveland Cavaliers were in the midst of a back-and-forth battle with the New York Knicks and in need of a victory. The team had lost three straight at the time, but there was reason for optimism.
For starters, No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett was finally beginning to show some progress. He had scored in double-digits in three of his last 10 games played, and he was also proving to be a force on the boards.
But then, with 5:57 left in the half and the Cavaliers trailing 41-35, Bennett exited the ball game. He would not be seen for the remainder of the contest.
Two days later, it was revealed that Bennett had suffered a patellar tendon strain in his left knee and would likely miss the remainder of the season.
It seemed like the sad punch line to the joke that had been Bennett’s rookie NBA season.
From the moment he was selected as the No. 1 overall pick on June 27, 2013, Bennett had been under major scrutiny. The draft was significantly weaker when compared to previous years, and few predicted Bennett’s selection at the top spot.
In fact, news broke out that the Cavaliers’ front office was debating selecting six different players at that spot just one week prior to the draft. It seems as if even the Cavaliers were less than 100 percent confident with their selection.
Yet, when all was said and done, Bennett was their guy. Bennett’s also immediately became the media’s guy — at least when it came to criticism.
To be fair, Bennett did himself no favors.
The former UNLV Runnin’ underwent shoulder surgery during the summer, which caused him to come into camp significantly overweight. The word on the street was that Bennett was fond of the late night fast food runs, and it showed — both physically in his appearance and when it came to his performance.
From that point on, the stories surrounding Bennett were all the same.
The media scrutinized his performance and some went as far to suggest that he could be the biggest bust in NBA history.
It was the same story for fans.
They questioned his work ethic and constantly criticized his on-court performance. It’s true that Bennett at times did look a bit lost, but he was also a rookie, who played only one year of college basketball. Nonetheless, no one was giving him a free pass and the same thing could be said for Chris Grant, the former Cavaliers general manager who orchestrated the selection of Bennett.
Media pundits and fans alike were calling for Grant’s head.
At face value, Bennett’s numbers from his rookie season were ugly. He averaged just 4.2 points and three rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game. He also posted a measly PER of 6.95.
There is no way of sugarcoating just how bad things got during last year. This was especially true during a stretch in mid-January where former head coach Mike Brown decided to bench Bennett for six straight games, despite the fact that he was completely healthy.
Fans started to wonder if Bennett should be sent down to the NBA D-League, and this was something that Bennett himself campaigned for. It’s hard to really blame him either as the Cavs had drafted him to play basketball, yet he had not seen the court in weeks.
Maybe I’m a softie, but how could a person not feel something for Bennett and what he was going through?
Remember that as a Toronto native, Bennett comes from a country where basketball is not under the huge microscope that it is here in the United States. Furthermore, Bennett played on a UNLV team that competes in the Mountain West Conference.
While Las Vegas might be known for its bright lights, UNLV is hardly the Hollywood of college basketball, and the Mountain West is not exactly the strongest conference. As a high schooler and college player, the game came so naturally for Bennett. This was probably the first time that he had ever struggled.
Also, Bennett never asked to be the No. 1 overall selection, and he was probably as surprised as anyone when the Cavaliers made the pick. Brown was reportedly a big fan of Bennett and encouraged Grant to make choose him because he thought Bennett could offer immediate assistance.
It does seem somewhat hypocritical that Brown would then choose not to play Bennett at all for a stretch of six games. How exactly is that helping with a young player’s confidence?
To play devil’s advocate, it’s not as if Bennett’s performance warranted increased playing time. However, something did start to change once Bennett returned after the benching.
Take a look at the chart below:
|Anthony Bennett 2013-14||Games||FG Percentage||MPG||PPG||RPG||GmSc|
|10-30-13 to 01-24-14||32||0.259||10.2||2.4||2.3||0.3|
|01-28-14 to 04-16-14||20||0.451||16.8||7||4.2||4.6|
The second set of numbers represents Bennett’s final 20 games he played last season, which followed his tough stretch in the middle of January. The numbers clearly show that Bennett was a much more efficient player following his benching.
Maybe Bennett was motivated by the benching?
Perhaps it helped him get back that killer edge?
The likely explanation is that Bennett was probably finally healthy, fit and up to speed with the NBA game.
The most telling statistics from the two separate stretches of the season are Bennett’s two game scores. Game score was invented by John Hollinger to provide a rough measure of a player’s performance in a given game. The statistic takes into account almost everything a player does during a game that can be quantified, and the statistics are then weighted and added together to get a game score.
Traditionally, an average NBA player has a game score of around 10. So, to be fair, even when he was playing better, Bennett was still performing at a below-average level.
However, he also showed drastic improvement, especially considering everything he went through at the beginning of the season. Seven points in under 17 minutes per game is not shabby, and his field-goal percentage almost doubled.
The statistics show that Bennett was exhibiting signs of a quality NBA player. His statistics were still not typical for a No. 1 overall pick, but they were indicative of a player that can help a team, especially if that player starts to average around 25 minutes per game.
At 6-feet, 8-inches, and 259 pounds, Bennett is an imposing figure, and his athleticism is off the charts. Conventional wisdom would suggest that it’s only a matter of time before he starts to get his bearings and can help the Cavaliers.
Furthermore, it’s clear that new general manager David Griffin, new head coach David Blatt and Cavaliers owner Daniel Gilbert are committed to Bennett.
For evidence, look no further than last Thursday’s NBA Draft.
For weeks, we heard rumblings about how the Cavaliers favored Duke’s Jabari Parker with the No. 1 selection because he was a player who would be able to immediately contribute.
However, at 6-feet, 9-inches and 250 pounds, Parker’s natural position is power forward. It seemed odd that the Cavaliers would select a player like Parker, especially since they made Bennett the No. 1 overall pick just a year earlier.
Ultimately, the Cavaliers decided to select Andrew Wiggins, most likely because he was the best fit. However, the selection of Wiggins should also be looked at as a vote of confidence for Bennett.
Bennett would likely be the first to admit that nothing went right last year. He suffered multiple injuries, came into training camp overweight, dealt with sleep apnea and had to constantly fight off questions about his underwhelming performance.
Thankfully, Bennett will have a second chance to make an impression, and that chance comes in just over a week’s time.
Beginning on July 11, Bennett will participate on the Cavaliers Summer League team, which will play its games in Las Vegas at, you guessed it, UNLV’s COX Pavilion and Thomas and Mack Center.
Bennett struggled to adjust to the NBA last season, and it seems apropos that he would begin his second NBA season in front of the same fans who saw him dominate and average 16.1 points as a member of the Runnin’ Rebels.
Everyone loves a feel-good story, and Bennett’s homecoming to UNLV is just that. With all of the negative stories from a year ago, this has to be a welcome change for Bennett.
Let’s just hope Bennett gives new meaning to the phrase “There’s no place like him.”