A few seconds after David Stern calls out Anthony Bennett’s name first in the 2013 NBA Draft, Bennett, outfitted in his new Cleveland Cavaliers cap, gets shepherded to the side to conduct his first interview as a professional basketball player.
He wears his youth, enthusiasm and his nerves like he wears his light grey suit, and when he’s told he’s the highest drafted Canadian ever, he ducks his head, proud and a little abashed.
“Jabbar, Magic, LeBron, Bennett,” the ESPN announcer says to the thousands at Barclays Center and the millions at home. “How does that sound?”
Bennett looks like he’s trying to keep it together, but his grin gets wider with every iconic No. 1 pick mentioned. “It sounds pretty good,” he says.
Second chance for No. 1 pick
Three years have passed, and last week, a demure Bennett finds himself sitting at a small table at the Nets’ practice facility. The team just finished introducing six of its newest acquisitions, and everyone is abuzz over Jeremy Lin, Linsanity, and even Lin’s new hairstyle. A few people chat with Bennett, who spent last year with the Raptors’ D-League team and signed a veteran minimum deal with the Nets, but that number dwindles when coach Kenny Atkinson begins to hold court.
“Every year has been a learning experience,” Bennett said, looking leaner and stronger than he has in recent history, fresh off an excellent performance with Team Canada where one of his dunks went viral. “It’s a business. You just got to be on your ‘A’ game every day, pretty much, or else someone’s going to take your spot.”
The wikipedia.com page on the 2013 NBA Draft describes Bennett as someone “who is now widely considered to be one of the biggest draft busts in league history.” Mostly a power forward, he’s averaged only 12.8 minutes in his three NBA seasons with three different teams, along with 4.2 points and 3.1 rebounds. Sports pundits questioned his work ethic, and conditioning. In 2014, former NBA point guard Gary Payton brutally chastised Bennett’s weight on “Fox Sports Live.” He was called fat on television.
And with all that, he’s still a cheap, safe bet. Atkinson said he was impressed with Bennett’s performance with Team Canada, his athleticism and his versatility, as well as his demeanor during the Nets’ mini camp. “He proved he could shoot the three,” he said. “We look at him as a guy that’s gonna fight for a rotation spot. So we really have to define what do we want from Anthony Bennett. He’s got to rebound the ball better, he’s got to run the court because I think he’s an elite athlete, and his versatility on defense has got to be huge.”
Bennett, 23, is signed for two years, and only one is guaranteed. He also gives the Nets another option at the 5, behind Brook Lopez. His youth slightly mitigates the sting of the Nets not having control of their first-round draft pick until 2019, and they get to capitalize on what must be a sad reality for Bennett: It’s all or nothing, because this could very well be his last chance.
Better shape, physically and mentally
Once the top-rated high-school power forward in the country (he finished his high school career at Findlay College Prep in Henderson, Nevada, after previously attending schools in West Virginia and Ontario), he enrolled at UNLV. After one season, he declared for the draft. And was taken No. 1.
Then his stock crashed.
After a 2013-14 rookie season in which he averaged 4.2 points a game, the Cavaliers traded him to the Timberwolves. In Minnesota, he averaged 5.2 points a game and was waived after the season. He signed with the Raptors, saw little action, and eventually asked to play for their D-League team. Bennett was waived again in March.
Since then, he’s been in training, trying to “get back to having fun” and watching his diet. He drinks only water, and pretty much only that. He’s slimmed down considerably, though he says the scale hasn’t changed much from his listed weight of 245 pounds — his body composition has. The Bennett of today is markedly more toned.
The key for him now, he said, is “just playing with more confidence.” Shortly after he said that, someone asked him about being called a bust. Bennett does not flinch, does not hesitate.
“I really pretty much don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “It’s a process. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, from what everybody tells me. Like I’ve been saying, I’ll keep saying it, I’ve been working every day, just trying to better myself offensively and defensively. I feel like this year, it’s going to pay out a whole lot.”
‘No. 1 for a reason’
He doesn’t decry his selection in the draft, either. Had he been picked lower, there would have been less pressure. Maybe he would have had more time to develop. Maybe he wouldn’t be sitting in the Nets’ training facility, playing second (or third, or fourth) fiddle to Lin and the other players there.
“It happens for a reason,” he said. “I got picked No. 1 for a reason, so I’m just taking that with pride. I’m just going to go out there and work every day.”
Nets general manager Sean Marks pulled no punches. This is a chance, but it’s only that, and it’s up to Bennett to decide if he’ll forever go down as the “bust” on the Wikipedia page.
“He needs to make the most of it,” Marks said. “He’s hungry, so we’ll see. Really, the ball’s in his court now.”
5 THINGS ABOUT ANTHONY BENNETT
1. At age 16, he transferred from Braithwaite Secondary School in Brampton Ontario, to play basketball at Mountain State Academy in Beckley, West Virginia. The 100-student school closed its doors in 2010 and Bennett moved to Nevada to play for Findlay Prep outside Las Vegas.
2. He was the first Canadian taken No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.
3. He was the second UNLV product taken No. 1 overall. Larry Johnson (1991 Charlotte Hornets) was the first.
4. Last season, he became the first overall No. 1 to play in the NBA Development League (The Raptors905 team in Mississauga, Ontario).
5. Bennett was a member of the 2016 Canadian National basketball team that was eliminated in the Olympic qualifying tournament earlier this month.