According to my coffee mug, there are no do-overs in life. I make it a general rule not to argue with porcelain, but it sure seems like the newest member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Anthony Bennett, has been handed a big, huge, giant mulligan.
As part of the championship parade preparations in Cleveland (helping to lock down Kevin Love as Assistant Grand Marshall of Festivities), Bennett was shipped out to Minnesota (and probably invited to let the door hit him in the ass on the way out). Just a few months removed from one of the worst rookie seasons of all time, Bennett has an almost obscenely opportune opening to fade into the scenery while he looks for the components of a successful niche in the NBA. Expectations for his performance couldn’t really be lower. He is no longer the rookie to watch on his team (see: Wiggins, Andrew). He’s also not even the biggest disappointment on this roster—Ricky Rubio has seniority in that department. Short of crashing into Wiggins in practice and causing a traumatic injury, it’s hard to imagine things could get worse for him.
That’s not to say it will be easy to push things in a more positive direction. Bennett struggled in almost every area last season, with deficits in skill and experience exacerbated by poor conditioning and nagging injuries. He also faces the fairly significant challenge of figuring out what position he plays. As a rookie, Bennett’s ideal position fell somewhere in the murky labyrinth between the 3 and the 4. This chasm, much wider and more dangerous than that between any other positions, is littered with vulture-cleaned bones of many promising young players. The positional maze between the 3 and the 4 is where NBA careers go to die.
Possessing some, but not all, of the generalized traits of each forward position is not necessarily a death sentence; not everyone who enters this maze finds themselves doomed to a career of hopeless wandering. For some, the overlap presents a set of advantages to be exploited, allowing for a career of unique style and dimension. But it presents a unique set of challenges for everyone. Like the enormous distance separating Mars from Jupiter, the tightly grouped inner planets from the distant giants on the edge of our solar system, the distance in requisite skill and physical attributes between small and power forwards is enormous. There are successes and failures, but a hypothetical Venn diagram of skills from the idealized versions of each position would be a uniquely bizarre work of geometry.
One of my colleagues at Nylon Calculus, Andrew Johnson, has a great line about players who find their skill sets placing them in the chasm between defined positions: “a combo forward (or guard) is someone who can play both positions, a tweener is someone who can’t play either.” Although he has just started his journey through this between-positional maze, Bennett appears to be walking the path of a tweener, following the ball of yarn rolled out by players like Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley (both of whom were, ironically, Minnesota Timberwolves at one point). Each of these players came into the league wrapped in the trappings of offensive force. They appeared to be the best of both positions, comfortable shooters and capable on the perimeter, but still with the strength, skill and tenacity to bully people around on the interior. Those images have been deflated and each now appears to be not quite enough of either small forward yin or power forward yang to really make an impact in professional basketball.
Beasley’s story is well-known and illustrated with all sorts of chaotic cannabis flair. Those salacious escapades make it easy to forget that his one season at Kansas State was as impressive as Kevin Durant’s one season at the University of Texas, and that he appeared to have an offensive skill set of equal gravity. Sadly, Beasley doesn’t really do anything of the things he did at Kansas State anymore—he doesn’t rebound, he doesn’t play in the post, he doesn’t attack or get to the line. Instead, he floats 18-feet from the basket, sporadically self-flagellating—offering himself as a human sacrifice to the Mid-Range Minotaur.
Derrick Williams shot 56.8 percent on three-pointers his last year on college, on nearly two attempts per game. Across three seasons in the NBA, he’s shot 29.6 percent on three-pointers. But he, perhaps with some well-meaning but misguided nudging from coaches, has decided that he is a perimeter player. Although he hasn’t been able to find a consistent outside shot, he has sunk deeper and deeper into that quicksand, averaging fewer rebounds and shots at the rim each season.
Like Williams and Beasley before him, Bennett was an offensive force in college, alternately battering opponents inside and raining down destruction on their head from the perimeter. His numbers weren’t as impressive as either Williams or Beasley, but he also displayed a smooth handle with the ball and often initiated UNLV’s offense. All of this painted the picture of a player who might possess the best of both worlds, a diverse skill set to exploit the vulnerability of any defender assigned to him. Instead he looked completely overwhelmed and couldn’t exploit anything. Bennett made exactly one-quarter of his shots last season from beyond five feet, but they made up nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts. According to the scouting service, mySynergySports, his half-court offensive possessions were fairly evenly divided between isolations, post-ups, spot-ups, cuts and working as the screener in the pick-and-rolls. He ranked no better than 132nd in the league (by points per possessions) in any of those categories.
While it is often perceived as a deficit of talent or skill, what usually undoes these, not quite small, and not quite power, forwards is a crisis of identity. Williams, Beasley, Bennett and all their tragic predecessors have, at various times, appeared paralyzed by a lack of understanding of how they fit on the basketball court. It is not that they aren’t good enough to play in either world, it’s that they don’t understand the mix within themselves and tenuous balancing act it requires.
Players of this ilk are often derided for having coasted on talent, never having to refine their skills towards perfection. But in most cases the skills are more than enough, it is the understanding of exactly how and when to use them that undermines the process. At the center of the universe in college, Bennett was given the ball and the freedom to destroy the opposition in whatever way he saw fit. The difference in talent between him and his defender was often so large that several options were available. Now, his opportunities are more limited, heavily influenced by the players around him, all of which winnow his options. Facing up on the wing against Jimmy Butler, or catching the ball at the elbow against Zach Randolph, may present only a single reasonable scoring option. I’m of the opinion that Bennett can probably get the job done in either case, but at this point he is no idea what that specific job is.
In real terms, the Timberwolves are not that different a setting than Bennett found himself placed in last season—a young team with aspirations to big for their britches, just hoping to get a little bit better. But with expectations at rock bottom, on a team that didn’t spend the number one overall pick on him, there is a lot more breathing room. Ultimately, Anthony Bennett doesn’t have to be a small forward or a power forward—there is a niche for him between that rock and that hard place. Still, he has to be something and now is the time and place to start figuring it out.