Column: For Anthony Bennett, once a No. 1 overall draft pick, it’s still the NBA or bust
The men and women who help decide the futures of NBA hopefuls sit behind tables and desks inside the massive halls at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.
They see how wide players’ shoulders are, how they almost take up two seats. They see how players bound up from the bench when the coach shouts for them to get in the game. They see how the ball leaves a shooter’s hand from behind the three-point arc, the way his feet move (or don’t) on defense.
If you’re trying to make an NBA roster, it’s up to them — unless you’re Anthony Bennett. Then, it’s kind of up to you.
The No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft is trying to save his career in the G League, playing in the Winter Showcase for the Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario. A 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward, Bennett has as much talent as anyone in town. He just has to prove to the people watching that he’s not the player who floundered with five teams since the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him.
Bennett, 25, is averaging 14.1 points while making nearly half of his three-point shots this season. Clippers coaches and executives have been pleasantly surprised by his work ethic — formerly a red flag early in his NBA career.
He was more than a disappointment as a pro, never averaging more than 5.2 points. Cleveland could’ve taken future All-Stars Victor Oladipo (picked second) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (picked 15th) or future stalwart centers in Steven Adams or Rudy Gobert.
Instead, the Cavaliers selected Bennett, then traded him to Minnesota after one season. It was another in a series of moves over five years for the Toronto native, who already had relocated to Beckley, W. Va., as a junior in high school to play at Mountain State Academy, which closed the next year. He transferred to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., for his senior year and became a one-and-done player at Nevada Las Vegas.
He developed a reputation. It’s one of the first things that come up when scouts and front-office folks talk about Bennett. “Does he love basketball? Does he love to work?” they ask. There are stories about locker room naps and bad diets. There has to be a reason why a former No. 1 pick didn’t pan out.
The Clippers people who have worked with him in Ontario say they’ve seen no signs of laziness. They see a player who wants to work and get better. The stories either have been exaggerated or Bennett has changed.
He’s still fighting to get back. He’s not pouting about being out of the NBA. He’s not blaming anything on his asthma, or injuries, or instability that comes from being traded and waived and signed by his third team before his 23rd birthday.
“It’s life. It’s just the way the ball rolls,” Bennett said. “How do I say this? I’ve just tried to play the hand I’ve been dealt. Every year has been a struggle. Every year has been a challenge. Something new has always come up. But every year, I’ve been able to stick with it. I think that says a lot about me. A lot of people in my shoes would’ve quit.”
He showed his value on opening night of the Winter Showcase, a four-day event where G League teams gather for 27 games. Bennett got hot in the second half to finish with 16 points on just eight shots in 22 minutes.
His shooting from deep has him on the radar of several NBA teams, according to sources not authorized to speak publicly. Teams have been asking about him, trying to gauge how his first season with the Agua Caliente Clippers has gone. Because he’s not on the Clippers’ NBA roster or designated as one of their two two-way players, Bennett can be signed by any team.
“I know a lot of people are talking, especially about my shooting,” he said. “At the same time, I try not to let that get the best of me or change the way I play.”
In his final game at the Winter Showcase, Bennett struggled. He looked bothered by a couple of questionable calls. He left a pair of three-point shots well short, failing to even hit the rim.
“That’s Anthony Bennett,” one Eastern Conference scout texted during the game.
He’s undoubtedly flawed. NBA folks might wish he were a little taller or a little slimmer, hope he was a more consistent and versatile defender.
But that’s everyone in the G League, a place filled with players who have shortcomings. Ask the men and women sitting at those tables who they’ve really liked and who is available, and you probably won’t get the same answer.
If a team is looking for a power forward who can spread the floor, maybe they’ll look past some of Bennett’s flaws and give him another shot — maybe his last — to prove he’s an NBA player.
If it’s all weighing on Bennett’s shoulders, he’s not acting like it. He said he’s happy to be playing, even if it means a life of connecting commercial flights to smaller cities, worse hotels and smaller gyms with fewer fans.
“I’m playing ball. That’s most important to me. I’m playing basketball,” he said.
“You just have to make the best of it. It really shows the grind you have to go through to pretty much see yourself get back on top.”
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