In defense of Anthony Bennett

Eric P. Mull-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Bennett's rookie season has been nothing short of a nightmare. Is there any hope for the future?

By nearly any statistical measure, Anthony Bennett is having the worst season ever for a No. 1 pick. If you're a sadist and need proof, look no further than this Drew Garrison piece. Trying to find something positive to say about his stats is like frantically searching for options on the menu of the world's worst restaurant. The appetizer is the 27% shooting from the field. Dessert is the pitiful 10 minutes per game he's playing, but don't forget about the main course, the 1.1 PER that is even outstripped by Jamaal Tinsley, who last had a relevant moment in the NBA in 2008. It's bad.

ESPN's Chad Ford, while acknowledging it's still early, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that Bennett looks like the worst top pick in 20 years and it's hard to argue with that assessment.

To that end, I take no issue with Garrison's piece; he lays out the facts and they are damning. All I'd like to do is suggest some reasons why I think Bennett's career is not as doomed as his stats might suggest. Contemporary NBA analysis is consumed with the need to quantify everything, but there are legitimate reasons beyond the spreadsheets that should give Cavs and Canadian basketball fans some hope.

Let's start from the top. No one expected Bennett to come in and dominate, but this? Behind Jamaal Tinsley? It's hard to remember now, but Bennett was deemed a player with serious upside heading into the 2013 Draft. After the Cavs surprisingly selected him first, Ford wrote on ESPN that "Bennett was the player in this draft with the best chance to be a 20-and-10 guy." That was seven months ago.

It's not as if Bennett came out of nowhere and rode the promise of potential to the top of a weak draft. He was a McDonald's All-American in high school and was very productive during his lone season at UNLV, averaging 16 and 8 on 53% shooting with a sparkling 28.3 PER. He showed a feathery outside touch along with explosive power and athleticism that drew comparisons to another UNLV great in Larry Johnson.

So, what's gone wrong? In a word: circumstances. Bennett is far from blameless, but the combination of injury, a crowded frontcourt and lack of opportunity have conspired to create a perfect storm that has turned Bennett into a shell of his former self. Don't believe me? Take a look at this:


That was Anthony Bennett at UNLV. He's dunking, stroking jumpers and even cracking a smile or two. It looks like fun. Here's Bennett with the Cavaliers, less than a year later:


I salute you if you made it through what is one of the saddest NBA videos of the year. It's hard to believe that's the same guy. NBA Bennett is overweight, out of shape and clearly struggling with everything from confidence to his jump shot.

One of the most critical factors for success with any young NBA player is the situation in which they find themselves. Stable organizations tend to provide young players with the best chance to succeed; there's a reason why teams like Sacramento and Minnesota have left behind a trail of wasted lottery picks while the Spurs find rotation players and even stars outside of the lottery. Bad organizations and bad situations create bad players and right now there might be no worse situation for a young power forward than Cleveland.

With Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao as entrenched starters ahead of him, there was never going to be much time for Bennett, and that might be the biggest factor holding him back. Go back to that Drew Garrison piece I mentioned at the top. Take a look at the chart at the bottom; it shows the basic stats for top picks and Bennett stands out for many reasons. Not the least of those reasons is that, outside of Kwame Brown, he's averaged by far the fewest minutes per game (10.4). He's only played 20 minutes in a game once, and barely made it over the mark. You could say that's because he's been so bad and there's probably some truth to that. On the other hand, as David Thorpe argued recently on ESPN's Truehoop TV, it's really hard to learn and grow from your mistakes when a long stay on the bench is only one turnover or foul away. Would you feel comfortable in your own job if demotion was one minor slip-up away?

Most No. 1 picks are drafted to bad teams who both need and want to play them heavy minutes right away. That hasn't been the case with Bennett. After shoulder surgery that cost him most of his summer, Bennett was already behind the curve and badly out of shape. Stuck behind veterans and playing with several black holes on the perimeter (Dion Waiters, I'm looking at you), it's been almost impossible for Bennett to establish any kind of rhythm or confidence. Add to that an obvious win-now mantra from ownership (hence the Deng trade) and it's easy to see how Bennett has been put in a no-win situation. In the rare opportunities he has, Bennett is under immense pressure to perform; there's almost no room for mistakes.

Compare that to fellow rookies Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo, both of whom are playing over 30 minutes a game. If they screw up, it's OK; it's all part of the process. If Bennett screws up, he might not see the floor for a week and his home fans might serenade him with boos. It's a situation far more conducive to failure than success.

Some players fail in the NBA because they're obviously not good enough. Others fail because their potential is squandered, whether by themselves, their teams or a combination of both. It's too early to tell where Anthony Bennett will fall on that spectrum, but, based on his track record, it seems unlikely he'll continue to be this bad. While he may never be that 20-and-10 guy Ford wrote about after the draft, his career can still easily resemble UNLV Bennett more than what we've seen so far in Cleveland Bennett. Bennett has been an outstanding basketball player for years and looked the part of a very good NBA player less than a year ago; to fall apart so completely in such a short period of time would be shocking.

Again, there's no arguing with the stats. The numbers never lie, but in this case I suspect there's more to the story.

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