Andy G. and Patrick J. run the fantastic Wolves blog Punch-Drunk Wolves, which you probably already read, but if for some reason you don't, you absolutely should. Those guys regularly have interesting, unique, and well thought out takes on the Wolves and the NBA.
Last year, before the 2013 draft, they were very high on Anthony Bennett, who of course was the surprise first overall pick of the Cavaliers. After a difficult rookie campaign, he was included in the Kevin Love trade, and became a Timberwolf, which was a dream come true for the guys at PDW.
I thought it would be interesting to check in with them via email to see how they feel about their guy after seeing him in a Wolves jersey for 20 games. This is our conversation, which took place from Friday to today:
ERIC: I was thinking about Anthony Bennett earlier this morning and I thought it might be fun to try an email exchange with you (and Patrick if he's interested) about AB that we could both post on our sites if we actually say anything interesting.
I'll start off by asking: you guys were big Bennett fans prior to the 2013 draft, and still had enthusiasm for him after his disastrous rookie year and subsequent trade to the Wolves. Now that you've seen him up close for the first 20 games of his Wolves career, is the enthusiasm still as strong as ever, or is it beginning to wane?
ANDY: My enthusiasm is not what it was before, say, the 2013 draft. The reasons that I liked Bennett as a prospect still exist: For such a young player, he has a rare combination of having such a sweet shooting stroke with impressive size and physical strength. Most players built like Bennett is are more limited in what they can do offensively. But since that draft, we've seen a lot of health and conditioning issues. That includes the poor rehab from shoulder surgery that left him out of shape, and basically useless as a rookie on a bad Cavs team. It also includes asthma, sleep apnea, and vision problems, and I'm probably forgetting a condition or two.
Taken together, and watching him sometimes look more tired that he should be, I wonder if he will always struggle to play with a high enough energy level.
But, even with those concerns (and some of those have been dealt with via improved training and medical treatment), he's playing much better basketball than last year. As of this email writing, his PER is doubled from his rookie season (for one basic measure of progress, as an offensive player). On defense, his effort level varies more than it should and he's undersized, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the way he defends individually in the post, and how he uses his long arms to tip passes. Given how young he is (he doesn't turn 22 until March), and the circumstances of his rookie season, I'm cautiously optimistic that he'll continue to improve.
How about you? Agree/disagree with any of that?
ERIC: Well, you know I'm a pessimistic bastard. That said, sure, he's been better this season than he was last year...it would be hard to be otherwise. He's clearly in better shape, and that helps, and he's been making his jumpers, which is nice, though he takes a shocking amount of long twos (not all on him), and he's been regressing on those in recent games.
I don't like to comment on effort from my (television) vantage point, but I do worry about his energy level. It seems like he doesn't do much, and he isn't all that noticeable (a concern with Andrew Wiggins as well). Contrast that to, say, Jeff Adrien, a guy with fewer natural gifts but when he's in there, he's doing stuff. I also wonder about his development/basketball IQ. Sometimes it feels like he doesn't know what to do.
One thing I find interesting is Flip's handling of him. His minutes have been very up and down, and at one point Flip complained about all the 22 footers he launches (it's true that Bennett seems wired to shoot that shot every time it comes his way). On the other hand, it seems like Flip sets him up to get that shot. He often sets that high middle pick and just drifts to that top of the key spot where the ball rotates to him. How would you describe how Flip is using him, and do you think it's good for his development?
PATRICK: Eric in Madison mentioned above his concern with Anthony Bennett's energy level. Does Bennett have an NBA motor?
Bennett has not played many minutes for Flip Saunders' Wolves in 2014-15. It's still hard to get a read on him. Isn't this a problem? It's too early to say, but I think we've seen enough of Bennett's abilities and talents as a player to know that he's capable of doing better than the 7 pts and 4 rebounds per game he's averaging (in 17.5 minutes per game). His offensive game has been largely been limited to long twos, and the occasional dunk in transition or following an offensive rebound. We've never seen him really stand out in the Wolves offense, which Andrew Wiggins does increasingly regularly and Zach LaVine has done several times. Bennett hasn't shown any real dominance yet. We've seen flashes of fundamentals that scream NBA power forward: a suggest a beautiful jumper, the athleticism and size to dunk behind defenses, and a post game that combines power and explosiveness with finesse, good footwork, and the occasional deceptive fake to that gives Bennett the appearance of some exploitable advantages around the blocks, both with his back to the basket and in face-up opportunities.
Part of Eric's take is that Bennett simply doesn't do much. Whatever talent and skill he might have, it isn't always apparent when he's logged minutes. Eric contrasts this with the energy and activity that is noticeable in Jeff Adrien's game. Why don't we see Bennett making a more noticeable impact? Is Bennett's lack of activity a symptom of a lack of effort, or have Bennett's recovery from injuries that affected his strength and conditioning and his position in Flip Saunders' offense combined to produce what we've tended to see from Bennett on the floor: a big whose go-to offensive move is the long two-point jump shot? (a.k.a., the least efficient shot in basketball.)
I don't necessarily disagree with any of Eric's points, but where we see things differently lies in how we interpret Bennett's play so far, what it might mean for his potential development, and how the Wolves are handling their investment in him.
ANDY: I'm a little bit confused as to what Flip wants Bennett to do on offense, and -- unfortunately -- I think Bennett might be confused, too. Like you said, it seems like he's being set up to shoot long two-pointers from the top. To my eye, that action was working better (at least in terms of setting up more open looks) when Ricky and Mo Williams were healthy and playing point guard.
But recently, he's constantly looking over to the bench during games, and I can't tell if it's for instruction, fear of (or desire for) an incoming sub, or some combination. With Zach LaVine running the point (along with some Corey Brewer here and there (!)), the offense is understandably messier. And with that, they've gone to a lot of post-up/isolation sets where Bennett is totally uninvolved. I might be just apologizing for him here, but I think Bennett's style of play suffers more than the hyperactive types (Brewer, Shabazz, Adrien in the last game) when the offense is more chaotic and reliant on offensive rebound put-backs.
Another point: Flip's made it clear that Bennett is not to shoot threes. I'm okay with that for now, for in-game purposes. I think it makes sense to build Bennett's confidence by encouraging shots that will actually go in. He seemed almost broken last year in Cleveland, and his early success from the mid-range gives him "positive reinforcement" (to borrow Flip's term). It would be a shame though if he isn't practicing threes outside of games. (I can confirm that he does NOT shoot threes during pregame shootaround. He shoots 20 footers with Sam Mitchell feeding him. I suppose that makes sense for warming up.) There is nothing about Bennett's form to suggest that he can't develop longer range. As you're well aware, "stretch fours" are valuable, particularly if they can do an adequate job of defending bigger players.
In terms of development on this team, it sure seems like Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are getting the most attention right now. It's understandable for Wiggins, since the franchise needs him to be great. It's understandable for LaVine because the other point guard options are injured. But the ways that Flip is challenging Wiggins to expand his game are not (in games, anyway) being applied to Bennett. He's rarely posting up, and rarely trusted with the ball to do anything other than shoot jumpers or deliver basic hand-offs or passes. So he'll have to copy Shabazz Muhammad and improve in practice instead of games. And maybe that's the best way regardless. Frankly, I'm not sure.
Given how the season turned after the injuries, and given how Thad Young has been a bit of a disappointment so far (his PER and win shares/48 are worse than Bennett's, despite being the older/more experienced/higher paid player) would you like to see more playing time for Bennett? Or is that counterproductive to overload the youth movement during games?
PATRICK:This brings us to a larger issue: Why is Bennett so often in places on the floor that are unfavorable to his success?
Lots of us have noted that Bennett ends up standing and shooting a lot from just inside the three-point line. Well, he often begins sets by simply going to a spot slightly left of the top of the key and standing there while Zach LaVine or Corey Brewer (!) dribble the ball around the perimeter. Occasionally when this happens, Bennett sets a ball screen. Sometimes, Bennett receives passes while he's in this position, either off of pick 'n pop action or simple ball rotations. And he's pretty good at making those shots (though they've been going in less in recent games than they were earlier this season).
People want Bennett to translate those looks into three-point attempts. I'm sympathetic with that position. This can and hopefully will cease to be an issue once Flip grants Bennett his driver's license and allows him to select his own shots. (Eds. Note: Kurt Rambis did basically the same thing with the young Kevin Love's three-point shooting, and it didn't play out so well in hindsight. Like Bennett, Love was also a bit overweight and played the four and wasn't the quickest PF on the perimeter. And like Bennett, Love obviously had a pure jumper. Rambis' micromanagement of Love seriously retarded the development of what became the most lethal part of his offensive repertoire.)
So for me, Flip Saunders and the offense he runs are perhaps the biggest part of the explanation for why Bennett looks the way he does on the floor.
As a power forward, Flip has put Bennett in possibly the worst position to be in in one of the League's worst offensive systems. In Flip's sets, the power forward almost never is set up for high efficiency shots--threes and shots in the restricted area.
The problem goes beyond Bennett: Thad Young has also looked worse than Wolves fans expected this season while playing the same power forward role as Bennett. I believe that's because he tends to receive the ball in the same place as Bennett. While Bennett usually either shoots a long two or swings the ball, Thad often holds it for a while and then careens into the lane on a wild drive that results in a difficult, low-percentage "old-man" shot. Frankly, I'd rather see Thad make the decisions Bennett is making at this point, passing more than driving and chucking, but Thad is putting up decent stats while taking these extremely difficult shots, so he may look even worse as the season continues and shooting regresses to the mean.
An interesting experiment would be for Flip to give Shabazz Muhammad more minutes at PF, assigning him to the same place in the team's offensive sets currently occupied by Thad and Bennett. Unlike Bennett and Young, most of Shabazz's opportunities come at the SF position in post-ups on the block.
In Saunders' system as the PF, would Shabazz still look as good as he has so far this season, where in Saunders' offense he has enjoyed a role in a system that features players with his comparative advantage? Would his impressive energy and effort make up for the difference in the degree-of-difficulty of playing the role Bennett and Young play in Saunders' offense? To a degree, they probably would--he is arguably the team's best player since Ricky Rubio went down with an injury early in the season.
But from where Bennett (and Young) stand in Flip's offense, I doubt that even Shabazz would look as active or effective as you'd want from your power forward because he would literally not be in position to do so.
This all makes me suspicious that Anthony Bennett's ho-hum performance discussed above is the result of the Wolves' outdated offense, not Bennett's effort or ability.
The truth is, we can't really know the answer until Flip adds some variety to the playbook. Sadly, there's no indication that Flip will be changing things up anytime soon.
ANDY: So, in his pregame interview for the media, Flip addressed Bennett's playing time and the specific question I posed to you about "overloading the youth movement." I'll paraphrase, but he basically said that Bennett isn't playing as much right now because he has to play Zach and Wiggins both, and he doesn't want too much youth out there at the same time. He specifically referenced how Thad hasn't been playing well lately, but made some big shots down the stretch against Portland, and they need veterans to play with LaVine and Wiggins. He also said Bennett's been great in practice, lately.
Still interested in your take on it, but just thought I'd share what Flip said about it, since it was right on point to the discussion.
ERIC: I want to get back to this after a weekend and two games where I watched Bennett more closely in the wake of our discussion.
I thought against OKC that he clearly got a message, presumably from Flip, to stop with the long twos and find a way to get closer to the basket. He was reasonably effective offensively, going 4-6 from the field in 18, getting 3 hoops right around the basket. On the other hand, he was strangely passive rebounding the ball, and that really hurt the Wolves as a team, as the Thunder dominated the glass.
Then against the Lakers, the first half was classic bad Anthony. 0-for whatever on nothing but long jumpers. Frankly, I didn't expect to see him in the 2nd half. He was terrible. I wonder if he didn't get a talking to at half time, because he was a more aggressive player in his 2nd half stint, getting closer to the rim, rebounding with a little ferocity.
Overall, what I saw is what I've been seeing. Sometimes you get a few minutes of energy and good play where his talents shine through, but you get long stretches of frustration and invisibility. I suppose this is not so different from a lot of young players, but I have to say it's difficult to see anything resembling a star.
One thing I would like to see is consistent effort on the boards. I think he has a pretty good sense for rebounding, and good hands for it, but it's so hit and miss. He's got to become an effort guy at this point before anything else good happens for him.
PATRICK: My disagreement with Eric's concerns about Bennett's energy and potential "motor" (i.e., whether he will play hard) is twofold. Eric is right that at times this season, Bennett has appeared either not to react quickly enough to situations, or with the amount of vigor one expects of a power forward with Bennett's size and athletic ability. First, Bennett's energy level needs to be viewed in appropriate context--not only the strides he's made since last season, but the strides he shows the real ability to make in the next 1-2 seasons.
Before I defend Bennett's effort and, dare I say, his "motor," let me be clear in saying that I understand Bennett hasn't always appeared to be the most energetic Wolves player on the floor this season. Far from it, really.
You can be pretty sure Bennett's reckless abandon and relentlessness will ever be confused with Shabazz Muhammad's.
However, Eric seems to think this is a Bennett problem, and I think the issue is a combination of youth and injury setbacks, and perhaps equally, being cast in a system that severely limits his opportunity to exploit the unique skill set that made him the NBA's #1 overall pick in 2013.
Last season, Bennett was 19 years old and was set back numerous times by health issues that affected his strength and conditioning (sleep apnea, asthma, untreated vision problems, shoulder surgery). Recovering from these setbacks basically robbed Bennett of a prime year of basketball development as a 19-year old rookie. Bennett appears to be healthier this year and in better shape, but he still has a way to go. He displays occasional bursts of energy on putback dunks and in transition, but he will need another offseason of training before he will be physically able to sustain the grind of the substantial NBA minutes we would like to see him able to play this season for the Wolves.
Eric doesn't question Bennett's attitude or work ethic directly, but I think it's worth considering whether Bennett's play so far seems related to attitude issues. To me, Bennett has demonstrated a positive attitude. It would be easy to demonstrate negative frustration with not being given more minutes, more touches, and with not having many plays called for you. Instead, Bennett has seemed to accept his current role as one of learning. Bennett is working hard on his game, including long sessions before games working with assistant coaches, both on his jumper and on square-up moves outside the paint and back to the basket moves around the blocks. It's clear that Bennett is still learning the black arts of being a professional scorer. The encouraging things to me are (1) he already has unique but unrefined offensive skills and (2) he's investing time and energy in refining them. Given his size, bulk, and athleticism, this means that Bennett could become a much more potent offensive player than we're seeing right now. Not much should be read into what we've seen so far. A valid assessment of whether Bennett is developing into a real impact player will probably not be possible until next season.
Another thing I like about Bennett's work ethic is his willingness to try new things to improve himself--and to see them through to self-improvement. The clear example of this is the fact that Bennett underwent a grueling training program in California with new teammate Shabazz Muhammad last summer under the direction of a former Navy SEAL trainer. Bennett needed to get in shape quickly. He underwent training many thought he couldn't complete, and completed it in the best shape of his life.
Many players in Bennett's situation--injured, out of shape, and with his confidence shattered by his frustrating rookie season--would refuse to do what Bennett did. (Eds. Note: See Milicic, Darko, as a hypothetical example.)
Even though Bennett doesn't appear physically ready for major NBA minutes yet, the training does appear to have helped. He's noticeably slimmer at times appears to be extremely explosive (as he impressively showed in Summer League play, for example).
ANDY: My parting shot here, lest I start repeating points or talking in circles, is that I agree the offense is unfavorable to fours, but it's not all Flip's fault right now. Without Rubio or even Mo Williams, they've been forced to simplify to the extreme, and repeatedly post up Wiggins and Shabazz; the latter obviously having more success than the former. But there just isn't clear opportunities for Bennett or Young and neither has the inclination of Jeff "Playing for Another 10-Day" Adrien to go balls-to-the-walls for every potential tip or rebound. While I think that disposition would serve AB well right now in the short term, I don't think that's where his potential lies; I think he'd be better off polishing his finesse skills, and learning how to blend physicality with good basketball moves, the way Kevin Love did over time. To me, that means stronger post position and stronger pivot moves, and hopefully improved shooting over time.
But again: I'm hopeful that Ricky and Mo returning will clean up the offense and ultimately open up more consistent opportunities for Bennett.
Eric, anything you want to add before we wrap this up?
ERIC: If I'm going to get the last word...
I don't know anything about Bennett's attitude, or even really his effort; it's tough to discern those things from my vantage point. What I care about is his current and future production. Right now, it isn't where we want it to be, and I admit I have a hard time seeing it really blossom.
I think Patrick absolutely has a point about the shots Flip's offense is generating for Bennett, but it's on him to an extent to figure out how to be more consistently productive in all areas. I mentioned it before, but I really want to see more consistent aggression on the boards.
Once the Wolves get a point guard back, specifically Rubio, seeing Bennett get a chance at a more steady diet of being the roll man on the pick and roll would be an interesting experiment. Sometimes he shows off the good hands and feet necessary to be successful as a roll man.
At some point, however, the excuses ring hollow. He's going to have to show that he belongs. There is still time to do that, but the evidence is not strong so far.