After spending most of his life trying to find a multitude of ways to stand out on the basketball court, Anthony Bennett is returning home to Toronto with the Raptors in an effort to find his fit again. Surprisingly selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2013 NBA draft, Bennett now finds himself as a minimum-salary player simply looking to keep his career alive.
Bennett, billed as a pillar in the fast-rising future of Canadian basketball, has never resembled anything like it heretofore in his professional career. Immediately, having arrived to the league with a mountain of pressure heaped upon his shoulders, the UNLV product never stood a chance when it came playing the expectations game. Not only was Bennett the first Canadian-born player to be tabbed with the first overall pick—a stigma rarely escapable for those who wear the Crown of Thorns—but he was also selected by a Cavaliers team that was desperate to move on from the stink LeBron James’ departure left on the Cleveland organization.
Unless Bennett came in and produced at a near-LeBron level from the onset—a ridiculous idea for anyone to consider—nothing was going to be seen as good enough. That’s not a situation set up for Bennett to enjoy any kind of sustained success, and as a result, shocking nobody in the process, Bennett was moved to Minnesota in the Kevin Love trade after just one season with his first team.
Despite being introduced as part of the Timberwolves’ future, Bennett didn’t find much more success in his second NBA stop. Trotted out as one of the potential faces of the franchise moving forward upon his initial introduction, Bennett was pushed to the background and treated as an afterthought by the end of his Minnesota tenure.
Buried again on a team with nothing certain about its future, Bennett’s career was very much at a crossroads at just 22 years old. Although he was guaranteed millions of dollars by way of an NBA contract to play a sport he loved, Bennett couldn’t get the opportunity so many in his position have enjoyed prior. And unlike previous first-round picks who got multiple games, seasons and teams to prove their worth, Bennett’s market quickly dried up after being waived by the Timberwolves. With no team eligible to claim his contract believing he was worthy of an opportunity at the price he was set to be paid, Bennett, the 2013 No. 1 pick, was an unrestricted free agent before his third season was set to start.
Viewed as a bust by those who offer a half-hearted analysis of the incomplete picture, Bennett’s complicated situation requires much more perspective than simply reading the box score. Now free from the shackles of expectations, having repelled down the mountain of pressure and joining a Raptors team that he called his own long before his NBA career ever began, Bennett may finally be in the perfect position to find some form of success that has alluded him to date.
“He came in refreshed a little bit,” [Raptors head coach Dwane] Casey said. “The [pressure] is off. Just come in and play basketball. There are no expectations. We don’t expect him to come in and be the so-called No. 1 pick. Coming back to Toronto having to live up to that, I thought that would be the biggest hurdle. It hasn’t been.
“All that pressure has been lifted by being bought out, almost hitting rock bottom so to speak. Now he’s getting another chance to come out and play.”
Perception and expectation go hand-in-hand, and Bennett has learned that lesson well already. Instead of facing the gantlet from opposing fans every night while playing a role he’s unprepared for, Bennett will be embraced by hometown believers rooting for his success. Instead of having to prove those rooting for his failure wrong, Bennett can focus on rewarding those who have continued to support him along the way. And instead of having to deal with the constant spotlight being shone about him, Bennett can work his way to center stage until he feels ready to steal the show.
There are no guarantees that Bennett finds success with basketball now that he’s back home. He’ll have to deal with family, friends and plenty of off-court distractions that he may not have had prior. Very much viewed as a final audition for Bennett to prove he should continue to receive opportunities, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the undersized power forward to rebound both on and off the floor.
You can never knock a guy for going home to find his comfort zone again. What Bennett has to hope is that his one-year sojourn back to Canada results in a passport that gets stamped around the NBA globe.