Only a year ago, Brampton, Ontario's Anthony Bennett was making a splash in the NCAA at UNLV, averaging 16.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds, shooting .533 per cent from the field and .375 per cent from the three-point line with a good mix of power and range. The 6'8" freshman was drawing comparisons to former alum and Naismith Player of the Year Larry Johnson, and was considered a can't-miss NBA lottery pick.
Today, two months into his rookie NBA season after being selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2013 Draft, ESPN's NBA Insider Chad Ford says "he's looking like the worst #1 draft pick of the last twenty years."
Bennett's season averages of 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game, shooting .275 per cent from the field, .556 per cent from the free throw line and .148 per cent from behind the arc in 10.5 minutes per game do little to contravene Ford's claim.
Bennett's agent and former AAU coach Mike George feels the media criticism is making a bigger story than necessary and is tinged with bias.
"Obviously he's the #1 pick so there's a lot of pressure in that regard," George says. "I also think the fact that he's Canadian [means] a lot of the American media are not telling both sides of the story."
Yet, Ford was also the biggest champion of the now since forgotten, Serbian 7-footer Darko Milicic, who in 2002 was drafted behind LeBron James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
So how did Bennett go from stud to dud? Last January, he developed a torn left rotator cuff which he played through, until the Runnin' Rebels were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in March. After declaring for the draft, he had shoulder surgery in May and wasn't cleared for basketball activity until September, missing all of Summer League. He finally was able to participate in Cleveland's training camp, with a focus of getting back into game shape, working on his conditioning and losing weight.
The other side of the story that George refers to - the unfair media criticism - is that the Cavaliers strategy was always to ease Bennett in. Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, who covers the team, agrees.
"They actually are kind of stacked at power forward," she says. "So bringing him along slowly, on what they anticipated was going to be a playoff team, was definitely part of the plan. I know that they are a little sensitive to criticism of him, compared to some of the other players. They say if he played as many minutes as some of these other players, his stats would be better. I'm not sure I am totally in agreement on that."
But minutes are hard to come by for a rookie on an underperforming 11-21 squad searching for wins. Sending him down to the D-League isn't an option that the Cavaliers are entertaining, so is their master plan working?
"For the past two months, he's been going two-a-days and getting himself back in shape," George says. "That's why he's cut his weight down to 243 right now, and you see the difference between his play today and the start of the season. He looks different on the floor, he's running better, and playing with more confidence."
Schmitt Boyer offers a more measured assessment.
"It's very, very incremental," she says. "He'll do little things that coaches see and will point out to him when they are going through game footage. But I do think he's catching on and getting a little better, although they've set the bar pretty low. I sense that his confidence is actually getting better. Even if it might not be totally showing up in his stats, they're showing more confidence in him."
That confidence, coupled with opportunity, may be the shift Bennett needs, as he has lost 17 pounds since training camp. The Cavaliers have indefinitely suspended centre Andrew Bynum, freeing up minutes in the frontcourt and have ended the small forward experiment, moving him back to his natural slot in the power forward position.
"Is he starting off slower than a number 1 pick should?" Schmitt Boyer asks. "Yes, and I'm not trying to soften what he's doing in any means. A couple years ago, people were really down on Tristan Thompson and now I'm not sure he wouldn't be the second pick in that draft. It's a little quick to determine him the worst number one pick in twenty years. He may well be a bust, I just don't think it's fair to say that after two months in the NBA."
The end result of Bennett's rookie campaign lies somewhere in between. He won't go down as the worst pick in the last twenty years, yet is hard pressed to live up to the standard of a number one draft pick. Make no mistake, no one will pencil him in for the All-Rookie team just yet, but chances are high Bennett will prove that Ford may have been suffering from a case of premature proclamation.