I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it…
The successes of one Anthony Bennett officially live only in lore. The first-overall draft selection who was billed as an eye-opening, floor-running, rim-rattling big man has managed to somehow provide a three-week run where those within the Cleveland Cavaliers organization, as well as anyone related to the 20-year old, have been relegated to rhetoric that revolves around the ideal that Bennett can do the things expected of a No. 1 pick, he just hasn’t done them yet, at least during a time when recording devices are able to capture the events themselves. While Bennett is averaging putrid figures in the way of point totals and the efficiency by which they have been amassed, often looking completely lost while doing such, we continue to be reminded of the things the 260-pounder has done during practice sessions when only the coaches and his teammates are bearing witness. Anthony Bennett is the falling tree in the desolate forest.
When the cameras are rolling and the lights are shining bright, Bennett hoists wayward jump shots. A garbage-time sequence during the Cavaliers’ recent 29-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves saw Bennett, in the lane with nary a person to beat, miss a point-blank lay-up, corral the rebound and then throw a two-handed dunk attempt off of the back of the rim, sending the ball to the elbow and into the hands of a waiting defender. His teammates are supportive. His coaches are supportive. Hell, even opposing players are supportive. But as the din of Bronx Cheers begin to grow louder each time Bennett gets his hands on the ball, he presses, often leading to an errant shot rather than a calculated move that allows the UNLV product to exploit his strengths as a basketball player.
We’re told these strengths exist; we’ve seen them on television a season ago and within highlight clips leading up to the NBA Draft. But if one were comatose for the last 16 months and suddenly came to the very night that the Cavaliers played host to the Brooklyn Nets to tip off the 2013-14 season, they’d have to be sold on the fact that all of those YouTube clips were not doctored. The likeness is incredible, the tattoos are placed perfectly, but there is no way that the guy in the Cavaliers jersey is the same player as the one who once kept a dossier of the players on whom he dunked. The perception is that this Cavaliers were handed a pair of brand new Gucci lofers, but opted for the ones that were three sizes too big. The reality, at least per the team, is that their feet have plenty of time in which to grow into them.
“With social media today, everybody from inside to outside wants things to happen yesterday,” said Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown on Tuesday. “It’s no different for AB. He was the No. 1 pick. Everyone expects him to average 20 (points) and 15 (rebounds), right now. But there’s a patience factor that we’re gonna have, that I’m able to have, with him.”
Word has it that Bennett, during the team’s three-day break between battles with the team formerly known as the Bullets, has managed to piece together his best practices since joining the Cavaliers. Last week, following practice, Bennett was working with assistant coaches; the task at hand appeared to be the rookie’s mid-range game. Bennett’s release, the ball’s rotation and the way it subsequently splashed through the net were nearly flawless. If you were able to somehow avert your eyes from the barrel-chested man who took the shot, it would be easy to assume that the ball was hoisted by a sharp-shooting guard. On Tuesday, Bennett allegedly pulled off multiple dunks, the in-traffic kind that reminded his head coach of why he liked the power forward so much before his name was called this past summer. The rub: Bennett has now been moved to the end of the Cavaliers’ bench. His confidence, while growing on the periphery, will likely be kept behind the scenes as the newly formed Cavaliers rotation prevents him from extrapolating these resurrected skills during a game.
Such is the case when a team is struggling to find its rhythm out of the gate. Such is the case when three players who were starters—shooting guard Dion Waiters, small forward Earl Clark and center Anderson Varejao—are now taking on new roles off of the bench. The offense will be predicated upon point guard Kyrie Irving and center Andrew Bynum and will be aided by spacing. Players who can succeed away from the rim, like Irving, Clark and new starting shooting guard CJ Miles, will be integral. Starting power forward Tristan Thompson is averaging career-high marks in points, rebounds and steals—even his game is starting to move away from the rim. Thus, Bennett is left with scraps. He may see time in the event of foul trouble, but it’s unlikely his No. 15 is revealed beneath his warm-ups unless the Cavaliers are winning, or losing, by a margin that allows for the veterans to hang their shoes up for the evening.
“The hard part about it, while trying to build someone’s confidence, is you want to try to win some ballgames,” Brown said about the spinning plates act that is finding his No. 1 pick playing time while also worrying about his status as an employed head coach. “You probably won’t win all of them, but you want to try to stay in contention and keep [his] confidence a little bit, and so on and so forth.”
Those who want to support Bennett’s struggles and the patience involved with the development are quick to point out that; after all, none of the rookies (save for Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams) are regularly starting games for their respective teams. It was, as we were told, a bad draft that was without a sure-fire top selection. But it was also Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant who famously said that every draft has quality within it—the trick is just the successful mining of such. And given the first selection, it can be reasonably estimated that if the analysis and interviews and background work that goes in to pre-draft digging was done effectively, that the guy who was handed a wine and gold hat should be the one, if anyone, to come out as the man from his respective class.
It’s easy to blame social media and the Veruca Saltian expectations of our rookies. Cleveland, it should be said, has been handsomely spoiled by the instant results of their two previous No. 1 draft selections, both of whom were younger—and had considerably less collegiate experience—than Bennett. Brown’s parting words on Bennett were that of the “you’ll see” mold. At some point, Bennett will take to the floor, be it in a pinch or in a moment of an increasingly large Dif” and show the flashes of brilliance that have been waiting to erupt out this mountain of a man. Until then, the word “bust” will be tossed around; the idea that this kid, despite the way he excelled at the collegiate level, just doesn’t have what it takes to do the same within the NBA. And until then, we’ll have to believe that these plays, these dunks, these eye-opening moments that are going on behind closed doors are as real as the moments in which these stories are told.