2015 Offseason

Will Anthony Bennett get a chance?


While there are still a few vile internet trolls making Anthony Bennett fat jokes in the dark recesses of social media, many observers have settled nicely into two camps: those who still believe he’ll develop into a useful rotation player, and those who are politely skeptical.

On one hand, he’s dealt with numerous injuries since leaving UNLV after his freshman year, and has played for a pretty bad Cavaliers team and a very bad Timberwolves team during his two NBA seasons. Many players would fail to grow in situations like that. Plus, Bennett is still just 22 years old, and has certainly shown flashes (however fleeting) of the ability that made him the top overall pick in the (admittedly weak) 2013 NBA Draft. He is healthy for the first time since he entered the league, has managed to keep his weight under control, and appears to be making strides while playing for Team Canada in international play this summer. The Timberwolves are lottery-bound once again, and bad teams typically end up giving minutes to young players. He’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove himself in 2015-16… won’t he?

Not necessarily. There are two things working against Anthony Bennett moving forward. The first is his contract, which is often discussed, but is worth mentioning again. The Timberwolves have until the end of October to decide whether to pick up AB’s $7.3 million option for the 2016-17 season. Since the cap will rise sharply next summer and the rest of the team’s primary core players are either locked into cheap rookie-scale deals (Wiggins, Towns, LaVine, Muhammad, Dieng, Tyus Jones) or long-term contracts at around market value (Rubio and Pekovic), Bennett’s looming pay increase wouldn’t exactly be an albatross. Sure, his income and on-court productivity are out of whack, but if he’s viewed as an investment, the high cost isn’t a concern.

Is that how the Timberwolves’ front office views him? As an investment? If his option for 2016-17 is declined, the answer is clearly “no.” He becomes a $5.8 million expiring contract, and would therefore be easier to trade away. Even if he does stick with the team for the full season, in this scenario, Flip would be more inclined to allocate developmental minutes to guys who are under contract for multiple seasons going forward (Payne, Bjelica). However, if the team exercises the option, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the opposite is true, and that Flip Saunders believes he’s the power forward of the future in Minnesota. Again, since the cap is rising, and the rest of the salary situation is more than manageable, it’s possible to consider the $7.3 million a pricey flier rather than a cumbersome commitment.

That’s because the second problem for Anthony Bennett is the Timberwolves’ logjam at power forward and center. A thought exercise: there are around 7,900 minutes (96 per night, multiplied by 82 games) available for in the Wolves’ front court during the regular season. That sounds like a lot, but remember that, besides Bennett, there are six other players competing for time at those two spots: Kevin Garnett, Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nemanja Bjelica, and Adreian Payne. KG and Pek each have their injury and age concerns to deal with, but could conceivably play around 20 minutes per night in 50-to-55 games this upcoming season – around 1,000 minutes apiece. Dieng and Towns are the next best players after the veterans, and should be penciled in for around 25 minutes per night in 75ish games. That’d leave around 2100 total minutes to split between Bennett, Bjelica and Adreian Payne.

So who would have the upper hand between the trio? Bjelica is 27 years old, entering his ninth professional season, has tremendous size (6’10), ballhandling ability, and made 36% of his Euroleague threes over the past five years. Rather than trading away his rights for cash, as the Wolves are wont to do, Flip Saunders decided to bring the reigning Euroleague MVP over and give him a 3 year, $11.7 million deal. Saunders also sacrificed a future first round pick (an extremely odd and under-scrutinized choice for a lottery-bound team) to acquire Adreian Payne last February. Granted, Payne was brutal during his 29-game stint with the Timberwolves, but the fact remains that Minnesota proactively made the effort to acquire him. Then there’s Bennett, whose inclusion in the Wiggins-for-Love swap was more likely a stick than a carrot, and who posted the worst Net Rating on the team last season. Even during his best stretch of play (8 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist per game in 21 minutes between 11/14 and 12/6) the Wolves were still better when he was off the floor.

Not to mention the fact that most of the other players jockeying for playing time can occupy either frontcourt spot, while Bennett is confined (by both his size and lack of rim protection) to only playing power forward. It’s tough to see where he finds minutes without either catastrophic injury or someone else being traded away (to be fair, either scenario is possible). Whether the option is exercised or not, if he can’t beat out the competition on this roster, perhaps it isn’t meant to be. And looking at his competition, it’s difficult to give Bennett favorable odds.

It’s a shame that Bennett is burdened with the expectations that come from being a former number-1 overall pick, and the “bust” talk that comes when someone under-performs for their draft position. By all accounts, he’s a quiet, hard-working young man. If he’d been the 7th, 12th or 17th selection in 2013, the narrative would be completely different. Canadian national team coach Jay Triano has stated that he wants Anthony to simplify his game and become elite at one or two things. That’d be a tremendous place to start; but will it be enough?

It’d be great to see him persevere, to watch him overcome all the bad luck he’s experienced. But when cast in a harsh light, it’s tough to envision a scenario where that happens in Minnesota.

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7 thoughts on “Will Anthony Bennett get a chance?

  1. Politely skeptical.

    I, of course, would love to see this young man succeed but he is also clearly the odd man out in the frontcourt rotation. You can see the potential when he grabs a “man” rebound or throws down a ferocious dunk. but he’s been the worst player on the worst teams in the league for both years that he’s played which is not encouraging. I agree with your assertion that we’d probably view him differently if he was an athletic 21yr old project that was drafted in the late lottery and was only a $2mil dollar project rather than drafted #1 overall and a $6 or $7mil project.

    I still believe he has the potential to have a Paul Millsap-esque career, but I don’t that Minnesota is where that’ll happen.

    Good luck Mr. Bennett, and don’t worry – Luis Scola is a deceptively great basketball player.

  2. Believes he’ll develop into a nice rotation player

    I do not like the idea of giving up on him, at least not in the sense that we just let him walk without returning some value. Best case scenario IMO is he continues to play well in the FIBA games for team Canada, and Toronto trades a conditional #1 for him.

    Really he has had exactly one bad game for team Canada in both tournaments so far (although it was the last one he played) if he can bounce back for the remainder of the tournament there might be a lot of interest from Toronto. I know there are going to be the D Williams comps, likely rightly so. But I just can’t help wanting to see this kid do well. I think the worst thing to happen to him was the Cavs taking him #1 overall.

  3. I also find myself in the skeptical camp. If we move him I’d hardly be heart broken. But on the other hand, if there is any chance of him panning out, it’s not like we have a major cap space crunch or are being held back from a title run. The only real reason I can see that we’d want to dump him would be a lack of roster spots.

    So personally I’d like to see us give him another year to pull it together, as it won’t cost us much and has a pretty high potential (even if unlikely) upside.

  4. At his best, Bennett looks skilled enough to do a bit of everything, but he’s not good enough at any one thing to dictate the action. If he can learn to play help defense, he’ll hopefully find his fit somewhere being a secondary option who can take what the defense gives and crashes the boards. I’ve been thinking for a couple of months now that AB’s rosiest-possible outlook is a stronger, longer Thad Young, and while that may not be what you want out of a #1 overall pick, it’s certainly a quality NBA player.

    There were glimpses of that in Bennett’s handful of minutes with the starers last season, but he spent most of his time playing in an offense that completely lacked direction. There weren’t any cracks for him to fill because the entire system was a gaping chasm, and he understandably got lost in it.

    I’m crossing my fingers that the stability with team Canada is helping AB get his BBIQ up and build confidence so he can step into training camp and prove that he deserves the lion’s share of scrap minutes at the 4 (should that be the hyena’s share if they’re scrap minutes?).

  5. Unfortunately, I think Bennett will end up like D Williams; not smart enough to figure it out on defense and not confident enough to be consistent on offense. I hope I’m wrong because he does seem like a good kid and I want to root for him, it just looks like HE doesn’t know if he belongs in the NBA.

  6. I agree with William. Just not enough minutes to go around and Wolves definitely seem more invested in Bjelica and Payne. Tough situation. Our best hope is a conditional first rounder. But that only happens if Bennett impresses in FIBA. He won’t get enough run in preseason to change minds. A high 2nd rounder is more realistic. Plus we need a trade partner with cap space. Does Toronto have space?

  7. I’m going to be a rebel here: I’m in the totally confused camp.

    AB has been nothing but confusion for me from day one. I couldn’t believe he was taken #1 overall at the time, and the shock still has not worn off. Then, I was shocked by how bad he was his rookie year–I mean it was bizarre, logic defying bad. Then I was confused, despite this, why Cleveland was already willing to throw him into the Wiggins-Love trade and give up on him totally so soon. I get the feeling that the Wolves didn’t really demand that aspect of the trade, ‘We gotta have that Bennett!’ Then, when he came here and I could watch him night in and out, I saw things that suggested he had decent talent and ability now, and yet the majority of the time he masqueraded as an utterly clueless, cement footed problem. I think the persistence of fat jokes is in part because he was so pathetically out of shape when he entered the league and people don’t forget something like that overnight. I also think part of it is his continued low motor—he plays fat even when in great game shape. Then, suddenly, he’ll throw down the most violent dunk you’ve seen all week, or grab a really tough, athletic rebound. Just when you think you have him pegged, he’ll either flash or let you down hard.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that Bennett’s main problems are mental. In this respect, I don’t think he’s Derrick Williams 2.0, although Derrick has mental issues, too. Williams was reported to be a great athlete and a NBA three point threat in the draft days. He ended up not having NBA 3 range, and not really being a good shooter from anywhere. Athletically, he still has enough to show a Bennett-like flash, but he generally lacks Bennett’s power, and takes a complete plant in open space to get full usage of his jumping ability. Bennett appears to be both stronger and a better athlete. And I don’t think Bennett is too dense to be a decent player. He’s clearly not in possession of a great natural feel for the game or scholarship type attention to detail. I think his problem is exasperated by his lack of ‘feel’ but more of a mental thing. When you have too much floating in your head it stiffens your game up, it makes you look stupid. Some of the dumbest things I’ve done on a basketball court were from nerves and not having my head in the right ‘zen’ place to play, not from being clueless–panic stuff. Sometimes fear freezes you up and looks like lazy or stupid. Bennett looks like he’s terrified and overthinking every second he’s on an NBA court. He looks like he’s constantly worrying about doing something dumb and getting yanked onto the bench, and surprise, that’s what frequently happens. I have no idea how to solve this problem or if it does get solved in the NBA. And even if it is solved, AB is still an undersized, one position tweener forward (he is built like a tweener, but can only play power) with a steep learning curve, and diminished capital to burn as far as owner and coach patience goes. On top of all that, his talent isn’t vast even if he finds his way though all these weaknesses, and his ceiling isn’t super high. I think all this seems like more bother (and money) than it’s worth to most in the NBA.

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