It’s official. Anthony Bennett, the former No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the first Canadian to ever be drafted No. 1 overall (followed by fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins being drafted No.1 the next drat), is back in his home country of Canada. After the Timberwolves bought out the remaining year of his contract, Bennett cleared waivers and signed with the Toronto Raptors for a 1 year, $947,000 deal, not bad change considering that Bennett will still be getting the $3.65 million from the Timberwolves in the buyout deal. Nonetheless, it is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for Bennett, who will be on his 3rd team in 3 years. Though always seen as a stretch for the No. 1 pick, Cleveland, Minnesota and NBA fans in general surely expected more than what Bennett has produced his first two seasons in the league.
In his rookie campaign, Bennett was injured and out-of-shape in Cleveland, which limited his court time and production (he only played in 52 games and averaged 12.8 MPG). In his second season, he was traded along with fellow Canadian and No.1 pick Wiggins in the LeBron “super-deal”, and many expected Bennett to have a better opportunity to improve in a rebuilding situation rather than a competitive one in Cleveland (which was the case with LeBron arriving back home). However, he was unable to find a fit on the young Wolves squad amidst Wiggins, Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and Ricky Rubio. His minutes only improved to 15.7 MPG and his stats only improved slightly across the board (6.9 PER to 11.4 PER; minus-0.4 win shares to 0.3). Yes, the class he was part of wasn’t good at the top (though foreign picks like Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo are looking like steals and may end up being the cream of the crop along with Nerlens Noel, who is already a plus-plus defensive player after his first full year in the league), but even compared to his peers, Bennett pales mightily. His career win shares in negative-0.1, which ranks him 54th out of the 60 players drafted that year. Bennett may not be a bust just yet, but he hasn’t done anything so far in his first two years to prove that narrative wrong either.
So far, the biggest thing people remember of Bennett’s career so far is the wild reaction from fans, other draft picks and commentators when he was surprisingly selected No. 1, as evidenced in the video below:
Again, the shock from Bill Simmons’ “Whoa!” The hands on the back of the necks of the Cleveland Cavs fans in attendance. The shock on Noel’s face, unable to even look in Bennett’s direction. Hell, I think even David Stern, who was performing his last NBA Draft as commissioner, was shocked, as he took a second to pause before announcing Bennett’s name over the loud speakers to the passionate NBA fans in New York City. All profiled in the video demonstrated such a state of utter disbelief that has been a microcosm of the Bennett pick and his early NBA career: how the heck did he go Number One in the NBA Draft?
Nonetheless, scrape away the No. 1 pick aura. It was a lousy draft that really had no consensus No. 1 pick going in. He may rate as one of the lesser No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft’s history, but he won’t be the worst, as long as he stays healthy, which he has done for the most part (no missed seasons like some No. 1 picks). It’s easy to understand the performance in the first two years as well. He just wasn’t in prime physical condition due to nagging injuries prior and during his rookie year, and in Minnesota, it was understandable that he was unable to crack Flip Saunder’s rotation, especially with more proven and traditional bigs like Nikola Pekovic and Dieng (and later Kevin Garnett), and wings that Saunders was more familiar with such as Muhammad, Thaddeus Young and Chase Budinger. Lastly, it’s difficult to see where Bennett projects in the league position-wise: he is not quick enough to be a regular on the wing at small forward, but he is not big enough to be a regular at the 4 position either.
There certainly are a lot of warts with Bennett’s tenure in the NBA, and his game overall has been hard to define and project ever since he was at UNLV (is he a 3 or 4 is the biggest debate concerning Bennett; some argue he has to be a 3 to last in this league, but on a BS Report with Bill Simmons, Steve Nash remarked that Bennett is a more natural 4 whose preference is to play like a stretch 4; this isn’t exactly pushover analysis, as Nash is currently the GM for the Canadian Men’s National Team). But, as evidenced during the Pan American Games and FIBA Americas Tournament, Bennett can put up games like the one below:
It’s easy to see why scouts and organizations were so enamored with Bennett when they see him play for his home country. He plays confident. He shows surprising athleticism and ability to drive to the rim. He can hit the 3-pointer with regularity and ease. His post game is still a bit raw, as I don’t think he is truly a natural post player and still needs to work on his footwork around the paint (as do many young big men in the NBA). That being said, what he lacks in physical skills he makes up intangibles. Bennett has the aggressiveness, body and strength to overpower smaller wings on the block, while still maintaining the good shooting touch and quickness with the dribble to beat bigger forwards who are with him out on the perimeter. When it comes to FIBA play, Bennett makes his naysayers question a bit for dubbing him a “bust” and “one of the worst No. 1 picks ever”.
But unfortunately for Bennett, NBA legacies are determined by NBA games, not FIBA ones. Maybe Bennett will simply be a greater international competition player than a NBA one. Maybe he will find a team in Europe or another foreign country that will appreciate that FIBA success and he won’t be judged by the stigma of being a former No. 1 pick. But if he wants to be more than just a FIBA player and stay in the league, he will have to transition those intangibles he showcases in FIBA play to the NBA court. At times last year, Bennett showed that in Minnesota, and you can see it below in his highlight tape from last year. There were at times Bennett flashed the “Team Canada” swagger and brilliance with the Timberwolves last season. Unfortunately, for Bennett and the Wolves, those moments were too few and far between.
There are a lot of things to like though about Bennett and his new team. First all, I truly think Bennett appreciates being Canadian and playing in front of home-country fans. Yes, FIBA competition is a lot different from the NBA. But, there is a special electric charge some players get when representing their country. Toronto provides Bennett that same kind of outlet as Canada’s only NBA team. If there is a NBA organization that could motivate Bennett in the same way that the Canadian National Team does during FIBA competitions in the summer, it has to be the Raptors with their fervent and heavily nationalistic fan base. (Seriously, can you argue that with their “We the North” campaign?)
Another benefit in Bennett’s favor is that it will be easier to crack the rotation than it was in Cleveland and even Minnesota. The Raptors won 49 games, finished as the winner of the Atlantic Division in the East (though the division was pretty lousy, as the sub.500 Celtics finished second), and were one of the better offensive teams in the NBA (4th overall in Offensive Rating). But, there is a lot to be determined with this Raptors roster this season. The Raptors lost long-time post player Amir Johnson and valuable scoring wings Lou Williams and Grievis Vasquez to free agency, and while they did sign DeMare Carroll from the Raptors, it’ll be interesting to see how Carroll fares offensively transitioning from Mike Budenholzer’s system in Atlanta. That is not to say Bennett will leap Carroll by any means, but if Carroll struggles to adapt to head coach Dwane Casey’s system, it’ll be interesting to see who minutes and shots will go to at the small forward position off the bench.
The most interesting position where Bennett could fit in though will be at power forward. Though Patrick Patterson has been good, he is far from spectacular, as evidenced by his 14.6 PER and meager 8.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg in 26.6 mpg last year. However, Patterson fit in with the Raptors as an excellent stretch four, as he took 52.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and hit 37.1 percent of them. Patterson and Bennett’s games are similar, and Bennett may be a better ball-handler and a bit more athletic on the wing. It’ll be interesting to see if Casey utilizes Bennett in a similar way to Patterson and maybe cut Bennett some of Patterson’s minutes. After all, Bennett could provide the same kind of arsenal that Patterson already brings, but with a bit more athleticism, positional versatility and obviously, more youth. That being said, Patterson won’t be giving up his minutes easy, as Patterson really established himself on this team last season as a key contributor (his 6.1 win shares were 4th most on the team) as well as fan favorite.
Bennett certainly could have fit in Portland (where his national team coach Jay Triano is an assistant) as well as Charlotte and Philly (where there were more obvious playing opportunities). But, I think the Raptors situation is the best for Bennett now. He needs to be in a place where he’s comfortable and he’s been the most comfortable and passionate as a player when he’s wearing the Red and White for Canada. The Raptors should give him the same kind of energy: he’s representing his country in another way, and realizing the dream of finally playing for his hometown team growing up only adds more fuel to Bennett’s fire. Bennett has always made it known how much he liked the Raptors growing up and has been impressed with Toronto fans, and that was on display in this interview last year with fellow Canadian and former teammate Tristan Thompson:
And while all the home country and hometown team ties are important, let’s not forget the most important aspect for Bennett and his NBA future: he’s in a good situation where he can compete and earn playing time right away for a competitive, playoff-seeking team. Granted, it won’t be starting playing time, and I doubt it’ll be in the 20-minute marks, especially early-on, but he’ll have a shot to make his mark and perhaps earn more if he can play loose and display his versatile offensive game. His skill set and size are a need for a team that is a bit shaky in the post, and his ability to shoot the 3 as well as score in the paint and finish with authority in the fast break will help give the Raptors a valuable option off the bench, which will help the keep competitive in the NBA Eastern Conference.
The big question about Bennett is whether NBA fans should have any hope going further for the guy after how bad his first two years have been. I think so. I don’t know if he’ll be a major star in the league, heck, I am not even sure if he can be a regular starter on a competitive team. But, as a key role player, a 7th-8th man who can stretch defenses and find multiple ways to score in limited 16-22 minute stretches? To me, that is possible for Bennett, even as soon as next year.
That kind of production will make him worth much more than the $947,000 the Raptors will pay him next year.
And that kind of production too will at least give him a better legacy than Greg Oden and Darko Milicic as well.