The case against Anthony Bennett

The case against Anthony Bennett
August 14, 2014, 8:15 am
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If the reports are to be believed, second-year forward Anthony Bennett is a player that Sixer fans should get themselves acquainted with. Bennett has been the rumored primary return on a rumored trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves--possibly as the third team in a trade sending Kevin Love to Cleveland, possibly not--which will cost the Sixers their longest-tenured and arguably most-valuable player, Thaddeus Young. If you noticed that the word "rumored" was included twice in that last sentence, you might have an idea of how tentative this still all is. But it seems at least like a strong possibility at this point, and is therefore probably worth discussing a little bit.

Initial reaction to the deal--which, even if inevitable, could probably not be completed for another ten days, when Cavs forward Andrew Wiggins becomes officially tradeable, thus setting the rest of the likely three-teamer in motion--has been mixed. On the one hand, Bennett was the #1 overall pick in the draft just last summer, a breed of prospect very rarely available for trade this early in his career. On the other hand, Bennett had an absolutely miserable rookie season for Cleveland, and the chances of him ever being as good as Thad already is are pretty far from 100%.

Both sides have arguments about Bennett's present and future, and before coming to my own conclusions, I'm going to try to present both of said arguments. In the process, I'll delve into the film from several of his Summer League games, which should give us the best idea of the kind of player Bennett currently is, and would be this year for the Sixers. I'll produce the Case Against first, then later on we'll have the the Case For.

The Case Against:

Well, first and foremost, let's get the obvious out of the way: Bennett wasn't just bad last year, he was historically terrible. By just about any statistical measure, Bennett was among the worst players to receive even semi-regular playing time in the NBA last year. Of players who played at least 600 minutes in the league last year--Bennett logged 663 total, about 13 per game--he finished fourth-lowest in Player Efficiency Rating (6.9), second-lowest in True Shooting % (42.5%) and second-lowest in Offensive Rating (85). In case advanced stats don't do it for you, his per-game numbers were no better--just 4.2 PPG and 3.0 RPG on 36% shooting, with more turnovers (47) than assists, steals and blocks combined (46).

Yes, it was that bad. But he was just a rookie, only 20 years old, and plenty of rookies struggle in their first season, right? Sure, but very few rookies of any age have ever had a season as bad as Bennett's and bounced back to have a particularly productive pro career. Only 25 rookies have ever played 650 minutes in a season and posted a PER lower than seven, and...well, you can look at the list of names if you want, but it's not pretty. None of them have ever made an All-Star team, suffice to say, and only a couple of them (Kareem Rush, Jim Petersen) even went on to have decent half-decade-plus careers as role-players.

What happened? Well, Bennett was badly out of shape all season, having had shoulder surgery in April, getting shut down before the draft and dealing with weight-related issues from there. Perhaps he could have played himself into game shape over the course of the year, but the Cavs (who had their eyes set on the playoffs last year) were understandably reticent to give him big minutes while he was struggling to such a degree. Bennett also suffered from asthma and sleep apnea, which may have further hurt him physically and affected his conditioning.

Many also suggested that Bennett was mentally unprepared for the NBA, and that when he got off to such a bad start to his pro career--an underwhelming preseason, followed by an NBA debut that saw him miss the first 16 shots he took, over five games--he was unable to shake it off from there. "He was a child," the Cleveland Morning Journal quoted college analyst Doug Gottlieb as saying. "He was not mentally ready...people made fun of him, and it was embarrassing."

Of course, all this only goes so far in explaining the horrors of Anthony Bennett's rookie season. He also just wasn't a good basketball player. His shot selection was terrible, he showed little ability to play within the team offense, and his effort and basic understanding on defense both left an incredible amount to be desired. Physical and mental fitness (or lack thereof) no doubt played a large role in all of this, but Bennett flashed little of the skill or IQ that was supposed to make him such a hot prospect in the first place. Watching him for Cleveland last year, it was just really hard to see the #1 draft pick underneath the sluggish, one-way black hole taking the court for the Cavs.

And while you could argue that having been the #1 pick is something of a curse for Bennett--an expectation he can never live up to--it's also a blessing, since it means that he will continue to get chances based on that pedigree that a normal player putting up his numbers would never be afforded. But fact is, Bennett was the top pick in one of the worst draft classes in NBA history, and a controversial selection at that: Neither ESPN, DraftExpress or NBADraft.net predicted Bennett to even go in the top seven, much less first overall. Referring to him as a "Former #1 overall pick" without any further context connotes a status as a prospect that Bennett arguably never deserved in the first place.

Anyway, all of that's in the past now, so let's take a look at the present for Bennett. Anthony has appeared to improve on some of the issues that dogged him last season--more on that to come in the Case For, obviously--but he still struggled badly in a number of other areas in Vegas this summer.

For one thing, Bennett struggles from positional awkwardness--big for a three, undersized for a four--which occasionally leaves him very vulnerable on the defensive end. Against the Bucks this summer, he got stuck with the assignment of guarding quick, versatile wing Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the results were often unseemly. Here, he leans a little too much to one side taking on Giannis on the perimeter, and gets blown by for an an easy layup and-one.

Here, again, the ball swings to Antetokounmpo on the wing against Bennett. Without even that quick a first move, Giannis easily gets the step on Bennett, forcing the Cavalier forward to bump him to stay in front of him, sending Antetokounmpo to the line.

It wasn't just the Greek Freak who was able to get the better of Anthony Bennett on the perimeter. Against the Spurs, Bennett gets matched against Austin Daye--a decently athletic player, but hardly a marvel--but he gives up the baseline to the lengthy forward on a drive, which forces the assistance of a help defender, and a subsequent putback slam by that defender's un-boxed-out man.

Basically, whenever Bennett gets isolated against a wing on the perimeter, it's bad news. He doesn't have the lateral quickness to stay in front of a decently speedy player who has room to blow past him, and to compensate, he fouls a whole lot. He averaged over four fouls a game in the Summer League (including a whopping eight in that Bucks game), which continues a trend from his rookie season, where he averaged five per 36 minutes, highest among Cavs regulars.

In addition to his quickness giving him issues in the half-court, Bennett still can be a little sluggish when it comes to getting back on D in transition. Look what happens here when Anteteokounmpo gets a head of steam towards the basket, with only Bennett standing in between:

It's not just that Bennett doesn't get over in time to stop Giannis, it's that he seems to give up on getting there before the play even unfolds. Generously, you could say he has a slow reaction time, less so, you could say he was just being lazy.

Bennett also showed lingering problems with guarding the pick-and-roll. In the Cavs' system this summer, Bennett would pretty show hard to contain the dribbler in the P&R, but he tended to linger on the perimeter a beat too long before rotating back to his man, forcing his teammates to scramble to cover up for him. Here, the problems he causes for his teammates in guarding the P&R against our own Jerami Grant lead to a couple fouls:

In addition to his defensive struggles, Bennett's rookie issues with shot selection again reared its ugly, inefficient head at Vegas. He's shown an irritating affinity for pull-up jumpers, like this ill-advised long two taken against the Bucks:

Bennett still isn't nearly the jump-shooter he thinks he is--he shot just 24% on jumpers last regular season, though at least he only shot a couple of them as pull-ups. He also continues to see himself as a three-point shooter, jacking three triples per 36 minutes in the regular season and shooting four per game this summer, despite only converting at a 25% clip both times.

Even as he gets closer to the basket, Bennett still occasionally seeks out scoring opportunities when they're just not there. Here, he tries to force one over at least three defenders against the Sixers, one of whom is Nerlens Noel, and it goes about as you'd expect:

Finally, it appears that conditioning still appears to be an issue of some degree for Bennett, as he tended to wear down at the end of games in Vegas--particularly the team's opener against Milwaukee, where his shots started falling brutally short:

Bennett's overall shooting was better than either last summer or regular season--it'd be damn near impossible for it not to be--but at 43% from the field, to go with 25% from three and just 60% from the line, it's still not nearly where it needs to be to make him a useful scorer, particularly for a frontcourt player.

And when Bennett's not contributing with his scoring, he's not doing a ton to help the team on offense. Like Spencer Hawes before him, Bennett's wide body should make him an asset as a screener, but he doesn't have the discipline to see his screens through, telegraphing them by setting up for them too early and then slipping them for a roll or pop without ever really making contact with his guard's man. The only really solid pick I saw him set this summer came with a solid takeout of our Jordan McRae...which was promptly whistled as a moving screen and a turnover. It's just not something that Bennett seems to know how to do well yet.

Bennett's struggles on both sides of the ball are very real, and quite unlikely to disappear as early as next season. Even if his conditioning improves, he needs to make sure his effort and discipline pick up along with it--right now, he makes too many errors in judgement and takes too many plays off to be a consistent and reliable contributor in the league. Trade for a player like that while giving up Thaddeus Young, a high-IQ, high-energy grinder who does all the little things right, and your on-court product is going to take quite the hit as a result.

This concludes the Case Against Anthony Bennett. Check back later for the Case For Anthony Bennett, with the 700 Level's conclusion on whether or not this guy's worth the trouble in the end.