Over a decade outside of the playoff picture and multiple failed rebuilding attempts will add a level of desperation to the process at hand. Throw in many failed lottery picks in the process and the necessity to get this latest and most promising rebuilding project to be a success is heightened. The nice thing about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ current situation in their rebuilding process is they have their main guys selected and there probably won’t be much to question in that respect.
Andrew Wiggins is going to be a superstar. Karl-Anthony Towns is likely to be a star in this league (obviously, I’m assuming here but this limb feels sturdy) and may end up being a more important player than Wiggins due to positional responsibilities. In the first year of this latest rebuild, Flip Saunders has done an incredible job of jump-starting this process. Now with the two main pieces in place, it’s on Saunders and the rest of the staff to see what they have to complement these two future stars.
Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine are fan favorites already. Gorgui Dieng is up there too. But the case of Anthony Bennett gives me flashbacks to a couple years ago when we were trying to figure out what the Wolves should do with Derrick Williams.
Back then, the Wolves had to make a decision on the fourth-year rookie deal team option for Williams, who was disappointing as a No. 2 pick. They had the clock of Kevin Love’s impending free agency ticking away, so there was a bit of pressure on getting the right, capable help into the mix as soon as possible. As it turns out, Williams simply couldn’t play. When he was an athlete, he was serviceable. When he was asked to make basketball decisions, he was one or two steps behind.
The pressure of being the No. 1 pick in the draft may be inside Bennett’s head. There may be a lot of that type of stuff creeping around the inside of his head. Since getting drafted No. 1 overall, he’s been bad, out of shape, and mostly unusable on a basketball court. He wasn’t a throw-in with Andrew Wiggins necessarily, but he was certainly more interesting in the trade as the Wolves could say they acquired two No. 1 picks for Love.
In a recent Q&A with Zach Lowe of Grantland, Flip Saunders confirmed what scouts have been saying about Bennett over the last season or two: his problems are mostly between his ears in regards to a lack of confidence.
The crowd might be bad news for Anthony Bennett. Have you decided what you’re going to do about his fourth-year option?
We’re going to evaluate him over the summer. He played a good Pan American Games. There is no question about his talent. It’s about getting in shape. He’s in shape now. But it’s going to be competitive with all those guys, and also Bjelica, who no one talks about.
Scouts tell me it’s “between the ears” with Bennett.
It’s confidence. But his lack of confidence is about the fact that he’s never been healthy since he left UNLV. You always tell players not to let injuries take away from their talent, but it can happen.
These points by Flip hit the issue right on the nose. Obviously, Bennett is a talented basketball player because it’s hard for a player to be drafted No. 1 overall in any draft and not have real basketball talent. However, talent doesn’t mean a whole lot if the mental game isn’t there and the mental game hasn’t been there. Some feel that’s due to not being consistently healthy. When he has been healthy, he’s trying to learn on the job and catch up to things he should have already been learning.
The $7.3 million question becomes: is Bennett’s development worth the investment? Or maybe a better way of phrasing it: is there actually a long-term benefit to seeing if Bennett has value? There are a couple of things going against Bennett and a couple of things going in his favor.
Let’s start with the things going against him:
The depth on the roster at his position
With all big men full of health, I think we can expect a big rotation of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Garnett starting with Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic off the bench. Nemanja Bjelica will be splitting time as a 3 and 4 (mostly a 4 but you have to get him on the court). That doesn’t leave many minutes for guys like Adreian Payne and Anthony Bennett. Now, I don’t think we expect all of the big men to remain relatively healthy for a full 82-game season.
Pek and KG are likely to miss a considerable number of games. Pekovic has played in just 85 games the last two seasons and I’m not sure how much optimism exists around the team that this injury is entirely manageable. He’s recovering and rehabbing from his latest ankle procedure, but that could take some time and there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to play even half the minutes while maintaining his health. Garnett has missed 63 games the last two seasons and at 39 years old, I’m not sure you can rely on him to be a regular over the course of an 82-game campaign.
(One thing you can certainly count on is he’ll probably start every single game he plays this season. He hasn’t come off the bench in a game since January 27, 1996. That’s important to him, which means it’s important to Flip. Garnett is a starter until he says he’s not.)
As I’ve stated here before (probably too many times), I love the idea of creating competition for minutes — especially when it comes to young guys. Certainly, there can be concern that a coach may not give proper consideration to a young player vs. a veteran, but I think Flip is obsessed enough with winning games and being competitive that he’ll put whoever the best option is on the floor. I also think it behooves him for Bennett to be good to make his Kevin Love trade look even better, so he is unlikely to bury AB on the bench unfairly.
If Bennett can’t outplay Adreian Payne to get minutes when/if Garnett and Pekovic miss games, I think that probably tells you everything you need to know about whether or not he should be playing in an attempt to further his development.
(One more drum I’ll beat to death on here: WOULDN’T THIS BE THE PERFECT SITUATION FOR THE WOLVES TO HAVE THEIR OWN D-LEAGUE TEAM THAT THEY OPERATE?! You could have Payne and Bennett shuttling back and forth while getting great development time in D-League games. How are the Wolves ending up as one of the last teams to make this happen?)
His play on the court
To say Bennett played poorly on the court in his first two years would be understating things a bit. He was woefully out of shape his rookie season and never got going because of it. It’s not a great thing to do but you can throw out that season and not take too much away from it. His first season with the Wolves was his first true introduction into the NBA and for the most part, it also didn’t go well.
Bennett played about 15 minutes per game, scoring five points and grabbing almost four rebounds. That stretches out to 12 and 8.7 per 36 minutes with 42.1% from the field and 30.4% from 3-point range (just 23 attempts). The rebounding was good and the shooting was vastly improved from his truncated rookie season, but so much of what he did on the court was not good.
It’s tough to judge anybody all that extensively when it came to defense last season because the injuries were so bad, it forced a lot of bad defensive situations for what ended up being the worst defense in the league. Bennett still wasn’t a good defender. He was a disaster in isolation and struggled defending the post and pick-and-roll ball handlers. He did well against spot-up shooters and rolling big men in PnR possessions, but there wasn’t much of a sample size to really feel great or awful about what he did.
While the defense he plays is important, I’d actually argue his struggles on offense were what kept him from getting consistent minutes and opportunities. You can work through a young player’s struggles defensively, but usually only if they have unimaginable potential or can produce offensively. AB doesn’t have unimaginable potential and his offensive struggles meant he was a big minus on both ends of the floor.
Taking a look at Bennett’s shooting charts, the obvious with him becomes even more so.
Put Bennett around the basket and he was actually quite solid. 65.7% in the restricted area/around the hoop isn’t otherworldly, but it’s good enough to see he’s not a total Darko. Where he struggles is with his jumper and his jumper is what was supposed to make him a nightmare match-up in the NBA. He was a 36.2% 3-point shooter at UNLV and he was one of the better spot-up shooters in college basketball that year.
In the NBA, the 3-point shot isn’t there and it wasn’t something Flip was interested in Bennett taking. I’m conflicted on this decision by Flip but will get to that in another section. AB was a bad 3-point shooter, an inconsistent midrange shooter, and he was abysmal on post-ups and pick-and-pops. As a PnR big man, Bennett was in the bottom 13% of the league. He was in the bottom 11% on cuts to the basket, and he was literally as bad posting up as Kendrick Perkins (both scored half a point per possession, bottom 6%).
If you believe he’s the shooter he was in college, a lot of this can be corrected with a few made baskets. That would open things up considerably for him. If you believe the college stats mean nothing or offer up very little insight into what he is in the NBA game, then it doesn’t look very promising. I’d attribute a lot of his troubles to the lack of being in shape and the lack of being in shape comes from the injuries.
AB may just end up being the type of guy who has to be healthy in order to consistently be in shape, and I don’t know what you do with someone like that. In that case, is it work ethic going against him (because we saw him get into amazing shape before last season) or is it genetics making it tough on him (not sure you can expect any player to be healthy their entire career)?
So… what about the things going in Anthony Bennett’s favor?
It’s not much of an investment
Some people may bristle at the idea of paying Bennett $7.3 million in his fourth season if he’s still not showing much potential, production, or development. But really, the $7.3 million doesn’t matter to the Timberwolves from a cap flexibility or salary commitment standpoint, thanks to the increase in the salary cap. He’s due to make $5.8 million this coming season, which is approximately 8.2% of the $70 million cap. When his salary jumps to $7.3 million with the fourth year option (assuming the Wolves pick it up), it will only be 7.9% of the projected $92 million cap number in 2016-17.
That’s the equivalent of Bennett going from making $5.8 million this year to $5.5 million the year after, in terms of how it hits the salary cap. Not to mention, the Wolves will have somewhere between $14.9 million and $22.3 million in cap space in the summer of 2016. The big difference depends on whether or not Kevin Martin picks up his $7.4 million player option or becomes a free agent to sign with a contender.
The Wolves aren’t normally players in free agency anyway, and they should be gearing up to make a big splash in 2017 when they could have upwards of $60 million in cap space depending on what happens with contract extensions to Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and possibly Bennett.
There are some encouraging signs in there somewhere
This is where I can’t decipher between defending Bennett as a prospect and defending Derrick Williams as a prospect from a couple years ago: when this guy gets to be an athlete, he’s really effective. I truly mean this. There is certainly skill in being able to rebound on the offensive end and turn those into points. Believe it or not, there is a skill and understanding to running the floor and being able to score by finding the lanes and letting your teammates find you within the rhythm and pace of a transition opportunity.
Bennett excels at both of those, and while the skill is there, it’s also because he’s a good athlete in those situations. Get him moving toward the hoop and you find so many of those monster dunks that seem to surprise people because we keep forgetting he’s a quick jumper and has long arms too. He’s 6’7″ with a 7’1″ wingspan. When he extends with the ball on those quick jumps, nobody is usually able to challenge.
Before I hit you with the boring stats, here are a bunch of his dunks from this past season. Take notice of how the majority of these happen:
OK, I could probably cut together dunks of just about any player in the NBA and it would look like they can do stuff, no matter what their skill level is. I get that. My main point was that there are three ways in which Bennett was effective last season: transition, offensive rebounding, and pick-and-rolls that have him going toward the basket.
These are all small sample sizes because Bennett didn’t play extensively, but he was in the 88th percentile in scoring efficiency on offensive boards, he was 92nd percentile on transition possessions, and he was in the 71st percentile when rolling to the basket. Get him running down the middle of the lane and he is kind of a mini-monster.
He shot 66.7% from the field when rolling to the basket on PnR’s and just 30.2% on pick-and-pops. The problem is the Wolves settled for him popping on 74.2% of his pick plays. I think a lot of this has to do with how little he played alongside Ricky Rubio. While Rubio’s season was also limited, he played significantly more minutes with Adreian Payne and Kevin Garnett than he did with Bennett. Payne joined the team on February 10th and played 199 minutes with Rubio. KG joined on the court after the trade deadline and played 99 minutes with Rubio.
Rubio and Bennett were on the roster all season together and because of injuries, depth chart, and probably AB’s play, they only played 49 minutes together. It’s understandable why this is the case, but that just shows you how odd the rotations and available minutes were this season. Playing with someone who can maximize the talents of a player like Bennett is huge for building confidence.
This is where we circle back to Flip dictating which shots guys can and can’t take. I don’t really have a problem with Flip telling a player which shots are and aren’t good shots for them. If that means that someone isn’t allowed to take 3’s then so be it. The 3-point issue is a whole other topic that we’ve already uniformly yelled about with this team, and I’d be shocked if we had any dissenters in the comments on this subject. But not all players should necessarily have the green light on this team. I’m cool with that.
However, if Flip believes AB has a confidence issue (granted he’s tying it to being in shape, which is fair), I’m not sure telling him there are shots he can and can’t take is a good idea. It’s probably the correct strategy from a basketball skill standpoint, but I’d argue that you want Bennett feeling like he’s supposed to take those shots when available. It’s similar to the “script” he had Rubio following within the flow of the offense. “The play says you take that shot, so take the shot and don’t think about it.”
If Bennett is only going to be a 30% 3-point shooter his entire career, then I don’t want him taking them. I also don’t want him thinking about what are acceptable and unacceptable shots within the flow of the offense. I just want him to shoot based on instinct and see if positive results can bring about the confidence necessary toward building him as a player.
There are positions on the floor that you can make him successful: around the basket, moving in a straight line to the hoop, and pushing the ball in transition. He’s a great trailer on the play and can help you build momentum with those kaiju-sized dunks. He was a capable shooter on unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities too (44.1% FG).
With Rubio and Bennett on the court together, the Wolves played at a 100-possession pace. Considering their athleticism on the roster, I’d love to see this team take chances in transition early and then fall into the set offense if the opportunities for quick strikes aren’t there. I’d like to see Bennett get some time with a real point guard on the floor and the additions of Andre Miller and Tyus Jones will definitely help in the second unit this time around.
Mostly, I’d just like to see Bennett work his way into the rotation to see what’s there. I don’t see a lost cause. I also don’t see someone the Wolves have to necessarily keep in their plans either. I think I kind of see a second time around with a Derrick Williams-type of development project, and I’d love to see them make it work this time.