The case for Anthony Bennett

The case for Anthony Bennett
August 14, 2014, 11:30 am

Earlier in the day we took a look at the case AGAINST Anthony Bennett on the Sixers. Here is the case FOR:

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. We had the Case Against earlier today, now let's move on to the Case For, and our conclusion about the trade's worthiness.

The Case For:

After all that bad, you might be wondering how there could possibly be a flipside to this argument. But there is, and it's a persuasive one in its own right. To start, you have to go back two years, to where Anthony Bennett was a freshman dominating competition in the Mountain West, averaging 16 and eight in just 27 minutes a game. Bennett feasted a little bit on a cupcake non-conference schedule--his MWC #s were a lot worse than those of his pre-conference play, though he also might have just worn down a bit as the year went on--and he had a short tournament run, putting up a respectable 15 and 11 (with two assists and two steals) in a first-round loss to California. 

In any event, it was enough to really put him on the radar for some draft evaluators, including those at SBNation, who predicted the Cavs' draft-night surprise a bit by ranking Bennett the #1 prospect in his class. Writing about him, Jonathan Tjarks cited his NBA-ready ability to hit from the inside and outside, saying "If you put Bennett in a 1-on-1 tournament against the rest of this class, he would win pretty handily." Tjarks blamed Bennett's lack of team success at UNLV on his unworthy teammates, and excused his lack of defensive effort as a byproduct of his youth. "He's far from a finished product," Tjarks concluded. "But he has the highest ceiling in this year's draft."

The real difference between Anthony Bennett the prospect and Anthony Bennett the pro has been his scoring efficiency. In college, his counting numbers were suppressed somewhat by his team's occasional inability to properly get him the ball--shades of this year's rookie Julius Randle at Kentucky--and his relatively low PT per game, but his efficiency was excellent. He shot 59% from two and 38% from three, while keeping his turnover rate respectable (under two a game) and also averaging about a block and a steal per contest. It was good for a 28.3 PER, easily the highest in the MWC that year.

If you wanted to make the case that Bennett's rookie struggles were indeed a large byproduct of his health troubles and lack of physical fitness, then his Summer League appearance did provide some pretty good support of that. He looked noticeably slimmer--still thick for an NBA body, but not nearly as doughy as he did as a rookie. He says he lost about 20 pounds, and he had tonsil surgery back in May to improve his asthma and sleep apnea. At Vegas, nobody wold confuse him for Kevin Durant in the open court, and as previously mentioned, he still got a little winded at the end of games, but he definitely appeared to be moving better than he ever had during his rookie season.

It showed in the numbers, too. For Summer League, Bennett averaged 13 points and eight rebounds--not stunning, but solid, a consistency we'd yet to see from Bennett at any point in the pros. We were also treated to some specific ways that Bennett can be reliably useful in the NBA, which we didn't really get a ton of during his rookie season.

For instance, Bennett proved to be a consistent offensive threat in transition. He's not necessarily the fastest player end to end, but he has a long stride that manages to cover a lot of ground pretty quickly, and his body is big enough that once he gets a head of steam, he's pretty hard to slow or stop. He was able to get a couple thunderous dunks against the Bucks running in transition:

You'll notice in those sequences, Bucks forwards C.J. Williams and Jabari Parker both have the opportunity to get in Bennett's way at the last second, but because they're pretty confident it won't make a difference (and because they're not obviously suicidal), they just let him have the free rim-run. In this clip, he hustles enough on the break to not only beat the clock at the end of the half, but beat our own shot-blocker Nerlens Noel to the rim.

Bennett also showed a little something more in the half-court, both in isolations and in set plays. Here he is working on our Brandon Davies for a couple fadeaway jumpers:

Those are cool, but I prefer when Bennett gets his looks off team actions--like in this one, where he pops out for an open elbow jumper around a screen from big man Jack Cooley:

Or this one, where he runs to an open spot on the elbow to take advantage of the attention drawn by wing teammate's Joe Harris drive to the basket, in effect serving as the pop man in an imaginary pick-and-pop:

Bennett showed good awareness of how to capitalize off his teammate's actions all Summer League. He caused problems for the defense by rolling to the basket behind his point guard's drives, getting buckets, fouls and putback opportunities in the process.

As previously mentioned, Bennett only shot 43% from the field in Summer League, but that was dragged down by his 4-16 performance from three-point land, where his struggles should continue this season. On two-pointers, Bennett was a respectable 16-31--nothing exemplary, perhaps, but again, very solid. The fact that he was able to get those 16 makes in a variety of ways, many of them on optimal looks from teammates in the flow of the offense, was incredibly encouraging.

The rebounding was also a plus. Bennett's eight-per tally was inflated a bit by the Spurs game, where seemingly every ball bounced his way in the first quarter and San Antonio sent nobody to crash the offensive glass, but he also showed good skill for boarding in general. Mostly, he proved a capable and willing boxer-outer, marking his man when the shot went up and using his thick, immovable body to keep him away from the basket:

On a couple of those sequences, Bennett doesn't even end up grabbing the rebound, but his excellent warding off of the likes of Nerlens Noel still ends up preventing the opposing team from grabbing the offensive rebound and allowing his Cavs teammate to secure the board, which is just as good.

And while Bennett struggled badly on perimeter defense, his post defense was actually pretty acceptable. Against the Sixers, he was able to contain Brandon Davies pretty effectively down low--which is a little bit like saying a pitcher was able to keep Ben Revere in the park, sure, but if Davies was able to have his way with him, it'd pretty much have been game over for Bennett. Check out him completely shutting this Davies post move down, which leads to a double-team trap and live-ball turnover:

Again, Davies is hardly the most formidable of post opponents, but with his size and sturdiness, Bennett seems much more fit for defense in the post than on the perimeter. On the Sixers, where he'd be replacing Thad and likely playing a good deal of the four, that should be OK, though it would make for some interesting questions of rotation minutes if and when Joel Embiid gets healthy.

Ultimately, I think you'd have to say it was a successful Summer League for Bennett. The Cavs went 3-1 in the four games he played, and he put up decent stats with both some highlight individual plays and some good work within the team offense. He showed better physical conditioning and better all-around smarts. It was the first sustained experience Bennett has had in the NBA that he had to walk away from feeling good about. 

And finally, touching back on that doomsday stat linked to in the Case Against that talked about how no rookie to post a PER below 7 has ever gone on to do much of anything, there is one semi-positive example that might point the way for Bennett's sophomore season and beyond: That of New Orleans Pelican Austin Rivers. The former Duke point guard, who was a top-ten pick for New Orleans in 2012, had a rookie season in '12-'13 to rival Bennett's last year in terms of struggle, showing the inability to do much of anything right on the floor, with terrible superficial stats and worse advanced numbers for a losing Pelicans team, showing virtually no NBA-level awareness whatsoever. It was bad enough that it was hard not to give up on him pretty straight away.

Rivers' second season was hardly an All-Star campaign either, but he showed real signs of improvement. He scored in greater volume with greater efficiency, he raised his assist rate and tightened up his defense, and he got dramatically better as the year went on, improving from 5.9 PPG and 1.7 APG on 38% shooting before the All-Star break to 10.1 and 3.2 on 43% shooting after. For the season, he nearly doubled his rookie PER (5.9 to 11.6), and in four starts at the end of the season, he put up a 16-6-5 on 44% FG. He still might very well never be a star, but he's a player now for sure.

And that's all Bennett really needs to be by the end of his second season: An NBA player. If Rivers can do it, there's no real reason why he can't.

Conclusion:

Bennett was starting to run out of excuses coming into this year's Summer League, and if he'd seemed completely out of his depth again this summer against sub-pro competition, I think it would have been reasonable to ask if this guy just wasn't meant to be an NBA player. But he didn't--he was actually one of the more impressive young players in Las Vegas, showing about as much pro potential as his much-greater-hyped teammate Andrew Wiggins. The issues that plagued him his rookie season didn't magically disappear, and he still has a lot of bad habits that will need coaching out of him, but for the first time since UNLV, you could see the upside. He's a real prospect again.

Will he ever be as good as Thaddeus Young? I tend to think not. Thad's one of the league's most consistent all-around players, not elite in any one area but capable of doing a little bit of everything without detracting anything from the team on the whole. Bennett, on the other hand, will always be a player whose pluses are dragged down by his minuses--his lack of defensive awareness, his predilection for jacking jumpers, his occasional forfeiture of effort or hustle. Good coaching can make inroads with that stuff, and you can bet that under the Brett Brown Fitness Program we'd eventually see Bennett at something close to peak physical form. But those problems rarely vanish altogether, and they'll likely prevent Anthony from reaching Thad-level two-way production.

However, for the Sixers' purposes, the two players cannot be compared in a vacuum like that. Though Thad now is better than Bennett now, and probably Bennett in five years, the fact is that Thad is also both a half-decade older than Bennett, twice as expensive, and under team control for only a fraction as long. All indications say that Young will opt out of his contract with the Sixers at the end of this season, unlikely to return to a team that should have just wrapped their third straight lottery-bound season. For all intents and purposes, Thad is an expiring contract for Philly this season. 

Even if Bennett never becomes as good as Young, he's still a hell of a return for Thad's expiring contract. With Bennett, the Sixers would have five of the top 24 combined picks from the last two drafts under team control, which makes for a hell of a nucleus to build around. He may or may not fit the team's long-term plans, but in the meantime, he's a prospect with great value around the league, one the Sixers could try to rehabilitate and sell in a year or two for twice as much as they paid for him. (And for what it's worth, the team has long been high on Bennett--reportedly, the 2013 draft-night deal for Nerlens Noel that cost the Sixers Jrue Holiday would still have gone down had AB been the player available for the Pelicans to take at #6, as well.)

And if Bennett turns out to simply be a bust...well, all we're giving up for him is a couple wins this season, which Our Dark Lord Sam Hinkie might not even want, if he's really aiming to grab another top prospect in this year's draft. It's a bit of a slap in the face to Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, to do away with their one legitimately professional teammate left on the roster (not counting J-Rich's potentially reanimated corpse) and give them a running mate even rawer than they instead, but they seem mature enough to understand the reasoning behind it, and they're under team control for long enough that they can't do a ton in protest anyway.

In the end, it hurts to give up a player like Thad, but when you have the chance to add a prospect as young and promising as Bennett at the expense of a player who doesn't include himself in your team's future anyway, it's usually a mistake to pass that up. Here's one more YouTube of Bennett, with the most impressive play I saw him make this Summer. Against the Spurs, he isolates against Austin Daye at the top of the key, crosses him over to get a step on him, drives the lane to attract a help defender, and dishes to Andrew Wiggins for the open jumper.

That's not really Bennett's game yet, and I don't think I saw him pull another move in the stratosphere of that one all last season or this summer. But still--you could probably count the number of power forwards in the NBA right now that could ever pull off a move like that on one hand. It takes a rare combination of skill, athleticism and intelligence, one you just don't often find in players of Bennett's size. And if he's got that in him, I wanna see what else he's got, too.

Let's hope the rumors are true.

Earlier: The case AGAINST Anthony Bennett.