Give Flip Saunders some credit.
The head coaching and president/general manager gigs are two separate positions for a reason; they have competing goals. The head coach wants to win now at any cost; he'll sacrifice young talent, draft picks, sometimes even his own long term sustainability to get veterans and run a system that will maximize single season wins. The front office, by contrast, must be focused on long term sustainability, stockpiling draft picks and young talent to keep their team competitive for as long as possible. Rarely can one person balance both goals. Usually the attempt ends in disaster.
But the execution of the Wiggins trade, President Saunders managed to come to terms with Coach Saunders on which was more important: both. Coach Saunders got the 76ers to deal Thaddeus Young, giving the Timberwolves a good, veteran replacement for Kevin Love at the power forward spot. But President Saunders got that trade done without sending Anthony Bennett back to Philadelphia, keeping a young, talented power forward on the roster to develop long term. Although the Wolves don't have a great chance at the postseason as Saunders seems to believe, the execution of the deal that let the Wolves think about both the present and future at the same time is certainly impressive. Bennett has a great deal of talent, even if he hasn't been able to utilize it in practice.
Last season, Bennett posted not just one of the worst seasons for a lottery pick, but arguably one of the worst of any player in NBA history, posting negatives in nearly every cumulative statistical category:
|On Court/Off Court
|Off Win Shares
|Def Win Shares
|Points over Par
In basic terms, Cleveland was better off without Bennett playing. It was really not good. Bennett took two months just to score his first regular basket last season.
Hopefully most of that was simply due to Bennett's health. Bennett started last year with a bad shoulder, which forced him to miss training camp and preseason. It was then revealed in October that he also suffered from asthma and sleep apnea. The culmination of this was horrendous conditioning that he was never able to straighten out during the season. Surgery to both his shoulder and tonsils have theoretically gotten Bennett back to 100%, and he's vowed to get his body back into playing shape. He looked physically leaner at Summer League (albeit still overweight), then at the State Fair he talked about getting his weight down from his current 260 lbs to the 240 lbs he was at UNVL.
That said, Bennett didn't exactly set college basketball on fire in the first place, even when healthy. He was an okay, but not great rebounder and didn't do much in the way of defense. And his conference play was pretty bad...just 12 points and 7 rebounds a game on 48% shooting. This, combined with the weighted schedule....the Mountain West Conference isn't exactly a powerhouse....came out to be a pretty poor draft rating. Of the four systems we used that year, the Hoopus Score had him ranked 13th, VJL's models both had him ranked 14th, and Madison Dan's didn't have him in the lottery at all.
Strangely though...as we're about to look at....the poor production didn't have much to do with a lack of talent. Bennett is absurdly talented, in a Kevin Love/Blake Griffin sort of way. He can shoot the ball. He can rebound it. He can handle it. He can dish it. He can dunk it. As I said last week on my Twitter account as I was finishing up video editing
Most accurate description of Anthony Bennett right now I can think of is a poor man's even fatter Charles Barkley
— Key Sang (@Phantele_) August 29, 2014
It's ironic to me that Mike Brown picked Bennett largely for the skills that Love possesses, despite having shown no idea how to develop those skills. That probably had a part in Bennett's miserable rookie year too. As anyone who's been paying attention knows, I hold Brown in pretty low regard as a head coach. His playbook is something a JV coach could come up with. He kills good offense (better believe Kyrie is happy to not be playing for him anymore)
And with Love in Cleveland with Kyrie (and some LeBron guy...I've heard he's pretty good too) the Wolves are in pretty dire need to talented big men to fill the void. Pekovic is a mountain and Thad can at least hold down the fort (although he's only 26. He can be a long term player here if he wants), the future of the frontcourt rests on Gorgui Dieng and, hopefully, Anthony Bennett. Who, if nothing else, is a tremendous amount of fun.
Apparently a fan asked Anthony Bennett if he could be called "Big Daddy Canada" yesterday. AB's response: "Sure!"
— Phil Ervin (@PhilErvin) August 27, 2014
Running the Floor, Drawing Fouls and Dunks:
Like LaVine and Wiggins, one of Bennett's biggest strengths is his athleticism. Much like Sir Charles, Bennett runs the floor and leaps with force despite not having what Shaq calls a "salad eater" body. At UNLV, Bennett posted a monsterous 74% at the rim, along with an equally monsterous .467 free throw rate . He was close to those marks in Summer League as well, completing or drawing a foul on nearly all his face up shots at the rim.
Catch and Shoot/3pt Range:
The other major element of Bennett's offense is his outside shot. Bennett was a 37% shooter from the Great Beyond in college, with the ability to space the floor with catch-and-shoots, as well as step into the shots himself.
As you can imagine, these two facets of Bennett's game makes him an intriguing running mate to Ricky Rubio. In an offense built to attack the basket in transition and space the floor in the halfcourt, a player who can do both could make a colossal impact. This combo inside/outside attack is the core of Bennett's potential; it's the reason Mike Brown made such a reach for him with that #1 pick and why Saunders insisted on keeping him despite his disasterous rookie year.
I wouldn't say Bennett is an extraordinary rebounder, like a Kevin Love or Dwight Howard. But he's certainly not a liability either. He boxes out hard (ironically, one area where his girth is a benefit). And while he doesn't consistently rebound outside of his area, he has an uncanny knack for moving his area to the ball. At UNLV he averaged 4 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes, 13th in his draft class.
Thanks to Love, the Wolves have consistently ranked near the top of the league in rebounding year after year, even though immense struggles elsewhere often rendered the effort meaningless. Now with Love gone, the team will have to take a much more committee approach to cleaning the glass. Every position will have to pull its weight. But Bennett has the potential to be a top rebounder if he sets his mind to it (and to better conditioning) Long term, the Wolves could continue to be a rebounding powerhouse with Bennett and Dieng.
This is not a strength for Bennett. For one, he doesn't move his feet well, which leaves him very vulnerable in pick-and-roll and isolation on the perimeter. Guards blow past him off the bounce with relative ease, and he doesn't quite have the reach to contest their shots from behind.
Secondly, and more problematically, Bennett is what Phil Jackson would often refer to as a 'space cadet'. On defense, this translates into a general lack of awareness, where he will lose track of his man, the ball, backdoor cutters, or all three.
The Wolves haven't exactly been a defensive powerhouse since Garnett left anyway, but this obviously isn't going to help. Bennett isn't great at stopping the ball, and Pekovic isn't much of a help defender, so unless Dieng quickly makes some gigantic strides in playing practical defense, the frontcourt rotation isn't likely to stop scoring blitzes this year any more than they weren't able to last year.
Part B of Bennett's enrollment at the space academy. While he has a vast repertoire of offensive skills, his decisions when to use what are thoroughly baffling. Bennett is something of a power forward Jamal Crawford.
EVERY SHOT IS A HEAT CHECK TO JAMAL CRAWFORD
— canishoopus (@canishoopus) May 4, 2014
Bennett has a completely disconcerting habit of taking shots regardless of such trivial details as "floor spacing" and "shot clock" and "being guarded".
This is the heart of Bennett's mediocre draft rating and certainly played a part in his rookie year struggles. Talent is only useful if it's controlled. A player who can't tell the difference between a good shot or bad shot...a good decision or bad decision...is just a loose cannon, no matter how talented he is. Remember how we pointed out at the top that Bennett was as much a problem for Cleveland as their opponents last season? Sure, a bad shoulder will affect your ability to make shots. But so will taking bad shots.
Fortunately young players can have a lot of this hidden early by playing alongside a smart, unselfish point guard. Much as we noted with Wiggins and LaVine, Bennett will have his learning curve eased by playing in a system that lets Rubio make most of the important decisions. Bennett will also have a master at shot selection to learn under in Thad Young, who's shot selection is a charting marvel.
Lots of layups, lots of threes. Just as the basketball gods intended.
Now for the fun parts of Bennett's game.
The first is his handles. For better or worse (better for Bennett, probably worse for the Wolves...) Bennett has better handles than any of the team's small forwards and arguably than all but one of its shooting guards too. Bennett puts it too good use too, in all facets of the game: breaking presses, running the break, running screens on the perimeter, and attacking the basket.
Considering the Wolves are relying on a couple of very shaky handles at the small forward spot in Brewer and Wiggins...and their general lack of guys who can play the hoop in isolation...Bennett's ability to put the ball on the floor could create a unique attack for the Wolves. Plenty of bigs can run the floor, and more and more can shoot the three, but there still aren't a range of them that can handle the ball like a guard. If Bennett can improve his decision making, the Wolves could theoretically turn sets upside-down on opposing defenses by having Bennett initiate plays, a la Garnett/Blake Griffin/Lamar Odom.
Screens and Pindowns:
Well, like I said, if nothing else Bennett is highly entertaining to watch, and this is one of the best of his entertaining aspects.
In tandem with his not-insignificant waistline, Bennett has a clever, subtle, and sometimes hilarious way of...well, getting in the way. In Summer League he called his point guards into a screen almost every single possession he was on the floor for. Not only that, he's already a master at walling off defenders with those questionably legal I'm Just Trying To Get To My Spot moving 'screens'. He also pins down his own defenders like an NFL fullback to create driving lanes, pins down other defenders to open up shooting space on the perimeter, and in Summer League even once sent Wiggins to the free throw line by sneakily hip-checking his defender into Wiggins' path.
As you can imagine, this is a magnificent benefit for both himself and the team. Bennett doesn't just willingly set screens, he seems to enjoy it. That combined with his athleticism and shooting touch can make him a very dangerous weapon in combination with pick-and-Rubio sets, as well as free up shooters like Martin, Budinger and potentially LaVine off the ball.
More than even Wiggins and LaVine, Anthony Bennett is a mystery. His combination athleticism and skillset is genuinely unique even among the Blake Griffins and Kevin Loves of the modern NBA power forward. But is his health really a non-issue? And more importantly, can his decision-making ever improve enough to make good use of that talent?
Bennett has just about every tool you could want in an NBA big man. It's easy to see why the Cavaliers reached for him when you parse his game out. Whether he can ever live up to that standard...or even reach league average...remains to be seen. But the potential is certainly there.