Anthony Bennett Turns Heads In His Summer League Debut

Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Bennett had some big shoes to fill when the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him with the number one overall pick — their third since 2003 — last summer. Even though the draft class was one of the weakest in recent memory, Bennett leapfrogged a handful of names nobody expected him to (to name a few: Victor Oladipo, Nerlens Noel, Alex Len, Ben McLemore, Otto Porter) and proudly made history by becoming the first Canadian to headline the main event. For the Cavaliers, Bennett was supposed to be the missing piece in their return to the post-season; the final touch of their rebuild. However, thanks to a procedure on his shoulder in the off-season, Bennett had to miss all of the Summer League — a key event for the development of rookies — and came into training camp 20 pounds overweight. The fact that he also has sleep apnea and asthma didn’t help his situation at all.

The results were ugly. It took Bennett five games to knock down a field goal, he shot 28.7 percent from the field in his first 25 games and he didn’t score in double figures until the turn of the New Year. It was the culmination of arguably the worst season by a number one pick in the history of the NBA.

It wasn’t all doom-and-gloom, though, as Bennett did show some signs of life. In the month of December, he dropped 15 pounds, which transitioned into more opportunities on the court. Following his first double-digit scoring outing, he averaged 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per 17.7 minutes over his next 17 games — pedestrian numbers by most standards but a welcome sign from the Cavaliers and its fans, and proof that the bust labels were a little premature. And now that he has had some time to learn from his rookie campaign, he is in the best shape of his life and is preparing to bounce back from last season’s disappointment by proving why he was the number one overall pick. It’s a long process, but it’s one that starts in this year’s Summer League.

The Cavaliers kicked off the event yesterday in Las Vegas with a highly anticipated matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, home of the second overall pick in the draft, Jabari Parker. While the main attractions, Wiggins and Parker, went back-and-forth for the entirety of the game, combining for 35 points, it was Bennett who stole the headlines. The UNLV product flirted with a double-double — 15 points and seven rebounds in nearly 31 minutes of action on 6-for-16 shooting from the field and 1-for-5 from three — and looked spryer than he ever did last season, galavanting up and down the court like a new model. Although he fell in love with his jumper a little too much in the second-half, he provided some nice moments as a floor spacer, something that could make him a weapon in head coach David Blatt’s system.

A lot has changed for the Cavaliers in the past 24 hour; namely, LeBron James is returning home, which changes the complexion of their entire franchise for the foreseeable future. All eyes will now be on The King and Kyrie Irving, allowing the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to take a step out of the spotlight and learn from the greatest small forward to ever play the game and the greatest player of this generation. Expectations aren’t as high as they once were for the LeBron James-led Cavaliers, and that works in the favor of this budding team. In a letter on Sports Illustrated, LeBron said that he’s no promising a championship because he now knows how hard they are to deliver. He also said that it’ll be a much longer process than it was in 2010, when he joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and that’s because this team is so young.

It’s only one game and there’s no way what Bennett did on Friday night should make us all forget about his dismal rookie season, but, at the very least, it gives Cavaliers fans a good reason to be hopeful that he can pan out as they once expected. And now that LeBron James has returned to Cleveland, a load has been lifted off of Bennett’s shoulders; one that could be the difference between him dwelling on last season’s woes and moving past it by turning himself into the perfect role player for a championship contending team.

It’s still early but it’s something we caught a glimpse of last night.

Scott Rafferty