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.