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Why Anthony Bennett Might Resurrect His Career in 2015-16

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

In the history of the league, there’s never been a worse start for a No. 1 overall pick’s career than Anthony Bennett, who started with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His beginning wasn’t just awful for a top pick. It was awful, period. But this summer things are coming to light that suggest he could get his career back on the map.

Last summer, Zach Harper of CBS Sports wrote in regards to Bennett:

 He played one game in April and that was his season. Out of shape and without a position or a shot, he put up one of the 16-worst rookie seasons in NBA history. Look at that list of players and the best career is… Donte Greene? Dick Gibbs? Kareem Rush?

His sophomore season with the Minnesota Timberwolves was an improvement. But when you’re that far down, there’s not much room to go but up. The pool of players who are as bad as him expanded to 29. That’s all that have a lower Player Efficiency Rating and Win Share total than him after two seasons. Some of them, though, such as George McCloud, Allan Houston and Jamal Crawford actually went on to have solid careers. Houston and Hot Rod Hundley even made All-Star Games.

The problems with Bennett have never been about his ability. They’ve been about health, conditioning and understanding of the game. There are signs this summer indicating that he’s coming around on those things, and he could be in for a year where he could contribute.

The first winds of change came in the early offseason when it was revealed that Bennett was committed to losing weight and improving his game and signed up noted trainer Drew Hanlen to help him do it.

According to Phil Ervin of Fox Sports, the bizarre assortment of injuries that have plagued Bennett’s career could have something to do with it:

Illness and injury have plagued a large part. Hanlen also says Bennett’s “never really had an NBA offseason,” going through draft preparations and aftermath two years ago and being shipped to Minnesota last August.

Hanlen has been impressed so far. In his first week out west, Bennett dropped a whopping 12 pounds, Hanlen said, and hopes to lose a total of 20-25 by the time training camp starts.

That’s good for the conditioning, but what about the mental part?

“Somebody asked me on Twitter about Anthony, I’d posted little clips about him working out, working on screens, and (someone) was like, ‘Thank God,’ with a praying emoji,” Hanlen said. “But he’s such a good kid. He’s changed his mentality. I worked with him once during the season, and at that point, I think he was down on himself and kind of felt sorry for himself.

“But this summer, he’s got a completely new attitude.”

During the current FIBA Americas Championship, Bennett has reinforced that the improvement is real, not just talk from a trainer. Through seven games he’s shooting 68.8 percent from two, scoring 8.9 points and grabbing 6.1 boards in 19.1 minutes per game.

According to Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun, both the Canadian coach, Jay Triano, and Bennett are pleased with the player’s development in the tournament:

“I think Anthony Bennett’s summer has been absolutely fantastic for us,” Triano said after Canada defeated Panama on Sunday.

“He’s engaged in everything that we do on the floor, off the floor, rebounding. We’ve asked him to rebound, and he’s done it on a continuous basis. He runs the floor on a continuous basis. He provides help on the defensive end. He understands our defensive system.”

Confidence is important to Bennett and with Triano letting him just go out and play, he seems relaxed and is having fun. He looked relaxed before the game, throwing down a self-alley-oop reverse dunk in the layup line, and kept going from there.

“Coach was saying, ‘just line ’em up and knock ’em down,’ ” Bennett said.

And according to Josh Lewenberg of TSN, Canadian basketball hero Steve Nash agrees:

“Anthony has been exemplary this summer,” said Nash, the two-time NBA MVP and future hall of fame point guard. “He’s had a tough first two years in the league but his attitude’s been amazing. His talent has never been in question but his attitude, willingness to learn and attention to detail… not that his attitude was ever an issue, but for him to come, to play in the Pan Am Games, to partake in a whole summer with us, it shows he has a real willingness to learn and get better and a want to be a great player.”

This led Today’s Fastbreak colleague Jesus Gomez to highlight Bennett as one of four players looking to improve their skills during FIBA play, observing:

What the 22-year-old forward needs more than anything to get back on track is a defined role and some continuity. He’s getting exactly that with the stacked Canadian national team. In the first round of FIBA Americas, Bennett played 20 minutes a game and has been freed to rebound and be an opportunistic scorer. He’s not playing like a former first overall pick. In all likelihood, he never will. What he is doing is being productive and efficient, something he’s never been in the past.

Granted, there are a number of caveats at play here. Bennett is a tweener buried on the depth chart behind Kevin Garnett, Gorgui Dieng, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz MuhammadAdreian Payne and possibly Nemanja Bjelica. He doesn’t have to just establish that he’s playing better; he has to prove he’s playing superior to them and climb the ladder.

And yes, it is just FIBA. No offense to the rest of the world, but the competition there isn’t the same as it is in the NBA, and Bennett needs to establish that this commitment can hold at the highest level.

But if he can bring this level of energy and keep his head in the game, Bennett could be in for something that starts to even remotely justify him as a lottery pick. With it being the third year of his rookie contract and an extension looming ahead of him, there are big incentives for him to find his way. And it looks like he’s taking it seriously.

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