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Breaking Down the Wolves, Part IV: Discussing Anthony Bennett

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Part IV of an ongoing five-part series, aimed at breaking down the current state of the Wolves, was originally supposed to focus on three players who don't figure into the long-term plans in Minnesota. Chase Budinger and Gary Neal will have to take a back seat today. This part is all about Anthony Bennett.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed the first three parts of this series, check out Part IPart II and Part III to get caught up.

Tier IV: What to do with Big Daddy Canada?

Anthony Bennett

The first post I ever published here at Canis Hoopus included the following excerpt:

I want to believe that Anthony "Big Daddy Canada" Bennett is not the next tweener forward to grace the Target Center hardwood, a la Derrick Williams or Michael Beasley, though I'm unsure if he'll be on the squad to begin with.

Bennett ended up being included in last summer's blockbuster trade that brought Andrew Wiggins and Thad Young to Minneapolis during the Summer of Love. Immediately, we started to hear about physical changes. He adopted a strict diet and joined Shabazz Muhammad in chameleon training to reshape their bodies. Plenty of Wolves fans remember this awkward photo ("Hey, boys, let's get those jerseys off and snap some pictures of your crazy improved bods for the fans. They will eat this shit right up!") taken at Media Day back in late September.

Bennett also had surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids, and LASIK to correct his eyesight remember those vintage Horace Grant-esque black goggles he wore during the preseason? They weren't some bold fashion statement.

I started to feel optimistic about Bennett, changes and all. He was showing promise and appeared to be in far better shape than his disheartening rookie season. He looked to have a chip on his shoulder, ready to move forward in his career. I couldn't help but imagine a revival for the former No. 1 pick. In reality, things couldn't get much worse for him. The Toronto native didn't start from the bottom in the NBA, he started from the top and everything came crashing down. Anything that could have gone wrong absolutely went wrong during his disastrous first year. While I can't speak for Bennett, I'm sure it felt like he was drowning in criticism. Everybody had an opinion and almost none of them were positive (for good reason). Bennett was trapped by the expectations he couldn't meet.

When he started flashing the skills that made him the first pick two summers ago, over the course of his first preseason in Minnesota, it became impossible for me to dismiss him as a player. No matter how awful the results were in year one, I fell victim to the temptation of hope. I wanted to believe in him more than I wanted to be objective.

2014-2015 PRESEASON GAME LOG
DATE OPP SCORE MIN FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% FTM-FTA FT% REB AST BLK STL PF TO PTS
Fri 10/24 W 113-112 21 6-10 .600 0-0 .000 5-7 .714 6 0 0 1 1 0 17
Wed 10/22 W 110-91 8 0-4 .000 0-0 .000 0-0 .000 3 1 0 1 1 0 0
Tue 10/21 W 107-89 17 7-9 .778 0-0 .000 3-3 1.000 5 0 0 1 1 1 17
Sun 10/19 W 112-94 11 0-2 .000 0-0 .000 1-2 .500 2 0 0 1 1 0 1
Fri 10/17 L 98-105 30 5-11 .455 0-0 .000 2-2 1.000 11 0 1 2 2 2 12
Fri 10/10 W 116-110 25 6-13 .462 0-1 .000 1-1 1.000 8 1 0 1 1 1 13

His preseason play made me optimistic, but like any sport the preseason can act as the ultimate mirage. In many respects, I became blind with hope when it came to Bennett early on. Then came the regular season and my opinion started to shift.

In an effort to bring a two-sided discussion of AB's sophomore campaign, I asked Andy Grimsrud of Punch Drunk Wolves, who might be the biggest Bennett supporter I currently know of in the 612, to help assess where AB's future is headed. Here's our conversation...

JM: I'll begin here: there's almost no way I could support the Wolves picking up AB's fourth-year option by October 31. While it's unfortunate that Bennett missed out on playing games over the past month due to his ankle injury, that doesn't change the fact that retaining him for the '16-17 season would mean accepting his club option for $7,318,289. That's a lot of money for a player that hasn't proved much of anything in the league. I can't see any scenario where his option is picked up, unless he averages a 20-20 in Summer League after doubling-down on the aforementioned chameleon training. It couldn't possibly happen. The Wolves aren't naive enough to pick his option up, right? Nobody else in the league would be, I'd imagine. So he essentially becomes an expiring contract. Where do you see Bennett's future heading after this season? Do you think Flip and Milt will trade him this summer? Will anybody actually be interested?

AG: I should start by saying I'm not as confident as you are that the Wolves will waive his '16-17 player option. That $7.3 Million price tag isn't quite as high as it seems, when you consider that will be the year of the salary cap "spike." The league estimates the cap to jump from about $66 Million to about $90 Million from 2015 to 2016 (it's about $63 Million right now). Bennett's salary for that year is fixed, and won't rise with cap inflation. So, in today's understanding of NBA dollars, he'll be earning about $5.1 Million that year.

That isn't nothing  it's a pretty standard "Kahntract" in Wolves-speak  but it's less significant than it seems right now. The other reason that I'm not convinced that they'll waive the option is that, by doing that, they waive his entire future. If he improves significantly next season, they'll want to have matching rights in his restricted free agency down the road. In recent years, the Wolves have let young players go and it hasn't come back to bite them; those guys haven't "figured it out" elsewhere. You know the names and I don't need to repeat them.

But go back deeper in history and names like Bobby Jackson and Chauncey Billups pop up. Bennett hasn't played well here, but he's gotten himself in much better shape and played better than his rookie year by most important measures. He turned 22 years old just 10 days ago. Also (and while I'm making more excuses) Bennett has played only 49 of his 840 Wolves minutes with Ricky Rubio as his point guard. That means for about 94 percent of the time he's been on the floor the Wolves have been operating at or near a dysfunctional level as a team. He bears his own share of blame for that, but everyone who has watched this team knows that things run more smoothly when Ricky is at the point. It's entirely possible that his stats would be *even more* improved from Year 1 to 2 if he had something closer to 50 percent of his minutes with Rubio instead of Zach LaVine and Mo Williams.

(takes a deep breath)

Now, if I had to bet, then yes: I do think that Flip and Milt will trade him this summer. And yes, some team will definitely be interested. The Wolves won't get anything back of value  he just hasn't played well enough to justify it yet  but he's not at a point where he is completely written off. If he makes even half the level of strides he made from Year 1 to Year 2, in terms of conditioning, he might open up opportunities on defense where he can be a switch-type defender (see: most of the current Golden State Warriors, who have the league's best defense). If he plays for a modern-style coach (of which there seems to be a growing number) he'll start honing his three-point shooting habits and skills, which should make him a more efficient offensive player, almost instantly. And I have to believe teams around the league have some interest in that type of player, at his age, with his background.

What do you think? Did any of that convince you?

Photo credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

JM: You make a lot of valid points, Andy. Did you persuade me to pick up his player option? Not really. But part of the reason I wanted to have this discussion with you in the first place was to establish another perspective. It's important to understand both sides of any argument. I agree with you, it's probably too early to completely give up on Bennett becoming a serviceable NBA role player, or even a starting four down the road in the right system/culture. He has the skillset to be a good player, but I'm worried his mental makeup will keep him from realizing his potential. How much development can take place here? How do you teach self-confidence?

AB always wears his heart on his sleeve. When he screws up you can tell it eats him up inside. He loses focus when he fails on the court, often devoting more attention to the reaction of the coaching staff than what's happening on the court. This is apparent when he starts games with missed shots, turnovers and mistakes in general. Mentally, he basically crumbles right away and you can see how much he fears being pulled out of the game. He plays as if he knows he's on a short leash. Any mistake could get him benched for the game. That must be difficult on a team that doesn't hold its highly touted young players (namely Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine) to the same standard.

It's no wonder that all of his best games this season were sparked by quick starts. Maybe someday he can get to the point where a slow first half doesn't ruin his entire game, but again I question how he can change this trait. Playing through the highs and lows without being corrupted by either is an integral part of the game. I'm concerned that AB doesn't take criticism well and enters his shell when things go wrong.

What stinks most? If AB wasn't the No. 1 pick the circumstances would be different. If he had Payne's contract the Wolves could give him more time to develop and see it through. They could make sure they didn't have another Billups on their hands (I don't believe they do). But we have to play by different rules in the case of AB. His contract definitely won't look as bad under the new cap, I agree with your point there, and it's definitely hard to competently evaluate his improvement with all of the injuries, especially the absence of real point guard play (namely Rubio).

We've talked about this before, but I still see too much of Derrick Williams in AB's game to get behind picking up his option a tweener that hovers around the perimeter who constantly settles for long jumpers, someone that doesn't truly seem confident in his own abilities but has highlight reel, explosive plays that make you reconsider whether or not an actual player exists underneath the layers of noise. I defended DW for years. I was extremely hopeful that he'd put it all together and become a good NBA player. I was hopeful to the point of ignorance. In the case of AB, I may be more dismissive of his future because of past failures with high draft picks that have spurts of good play but largely fail to have any consistent impact. I do believe he can become something down the road if he figures out how to play towards his strengths, much like Shabazz Muhammad.

His shot is gorgeous, unlike that ungodly looking windup of the CAGED LION. He's super explosive and powerful near the rim, but we don't see it often enough. Defensively he showed some improvements before going down with that ankle injury, but he's still highly inconsistent. It's definitely premature to give up on him as a whole (not just on the Wolves) but I thought the trade for Payne was indicative of how the team views his future with the team (this is code for: they don't see a future).

To go back to the money situation quickly, the tantalizing "potential" of AB isn't worth $7.3 million under the new cap structure. Not when players like Jeff Adrien who rebound, defend and bring toughness in the paint are available on the open market. Look at Thomas Robinson with the Sixers since he joined them in late February. He's doing more than AB and AP, and Sam Hinkie grabbed him off waivers from Denver. Backup fours that do the things we need our backup fours to do are available at discount rates. Why pay all that cash for unrealized potential? I want AB to succeed very badly, but I've pretty much come to terms that it won't be in Minnesota if he eventually does.

I'm hoping AB returns this week and we can give him a few games of 30-40 minutes (in place of Payne) to get another look at him. Surely we don't have anything to lose. Hell, maybe Rubio can play in one of those games too. I agree it's become almost impractical to assess the team without Ricky in the lineup. He's the engine that runs the show.

Anyway, my question back to you is pretty scatterbrained: is the juice REALLY worth the squeeze with AB (picking up his option when he hasn't earned it)? And if the Wolves ultimately trade him this summer, what could a potential deal look like? Would it simply be a salary dump or could we pair him with somebody like Gorgui Dieng to actually receive something of value in return? Do the Raptors automatically become the #1 suitor because they've been vocal in their desire to snatch up a Canadian player (and because AB will almost certainly be available)? If you were giving a sales pitch to Saunders/Newton would you stick with the Rubio bit along with AB's age/inexperience. Is there anything else to consider here? Time is running out, Andy...

AG: I hear you on the comparison to Jeff Adrien-style hustle guys who can be gotten off the scrap heap. Where I think AB differs is in long-term upside what he could become and how swinging hard for some long-term home runs is a wiser move for a team like the Wolves than it would be for a title contender filling out the end of its bench before a playoff run.

You also make an astute observation about Bennett's habit of getting in his own head, fretting over mistakes and worrying about the conversations happening between coaches on the bench when he should be locked into his own assignment on defense, or trying to score on the other end. But I feel pretty strongly that that specific type of anxiety goes away with enough reps. Bennett is still very inexperienced, with his 1503 career minutes being closer to Zach LaVine's 1414 than Andrew Wiggins' 2473. He just turned the age of most college seniors and he hasn't played very much NBA ball yet. When the game slows down for him, some of those mental blocks will fade out. More than anything else, the jittery stuff tells me he worries about what his coaches think (contrast this with LaVine) and that isn't all bad.

If I were to punt on your questions, I'd say that I need to know more about what AB is like behind the scenes, in practice and around his teammates, in order to make that call. Do they see a different guy when it's a less-stressful scrimmage? Does he take people off the dribble and sometimes dominate his opponents? Or is it a constant struggle?

Based on what I've seen from my vantage point, dating back to his lone collegiate season, I'd recommend the Wolves keep him. I say this mostly because the Wolves are so young, and so bad, right now, that it's worth loading up on some young potential. They need two, preferably three or four, of the young guys on this team plus the next lottery pick to form a nucleus going forward. They need a couple of star players. If Bennett does some of those things I mentioned earlier (adds defensive versatility and three-point range) then he can be more easily incorporated into different lineups and develop chemistry with his teammates. If not, well, they're on the hook for seven million bucks for a season and that costs them a bit of flexibility but it's not that big of a deal in the context of what this team will be trying to accomplish, from an organizational scope, over the next two seasons.

Like I said before, I don't think an AB trade would bring back much (which is another reason, in my view, for keeping him). Bennett and Dieng together would basically be a trade of Dieng for a player with a higher salary that we covet more. Maybe the Raptors would be interested for nationalistic reasons but I don't think their current GM would do anything reckless. I think he wants Wiggins badly, per his recent remarks, but that's a different conversation.

Anyway, lest I start repeating myself, I recognize that Bennett had a poor year, but it was also a year of improvement in different ways and I think with more time and more (better?) coaching, his future could still be bright. I'd guess he'll be traded away for the salary reason and to clear room for the even-more-newly acquired Adreian Payne, but I kind of hope I'm wrong on that.

JM: I'll admit, you have me questioning this decision more than ever. I'm going to stick to my guns and trust my gut, I don't think he's worth the risk. I bet they trade him this summer along with something else, or decline his option and he's gone after next season (or dumped in a trade during the next year). I don't feel the organization is very high on him. The mid-season trade for Adreian Payne came out of left field and I thought that move showed the organizations cards, so to speak. It said a lot about how the front office values AB. I can understand your argument for keeping him around taking the long-term approach with young talent that needs the right seasoning to put it all together  but I don't get the vibe that's what's going to happen. It's also a ton of money for somebody that hasn't proved shit in the Association.

Bennett is posting a 9.2 PER in 1503 minutes. His career TS% is .440 and his .021 WS/48 this season isn't exactly inspiring. He's repping the second worst RPM at -7.08 – definitely a metric that takes teammates into account, but awful nonetheless. He has a minuscule 1.39 AST/TO ratio, and if he doesn't shoot it in the restricted area (60.6 FG%) smart money is on a clank (29.7% out of the restricted area). Add up everything and I wouldn't be bummed to see AB move on to another organization. Maybe he will find himself down the road, but I highly doubt it's going to be in a Wolves uniform.

We'll see what happens.

Contract

Team 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Minnesota Timberwolves $5,563,920 $5,803,560 $7,318,289