He Didn’t Pick Himself Number One Overall
The sports world can be cruel and unforgiving. Even more so in a world of lists and rankings that are subjective and heartless.
You’d be hard pressed to find any list of NBA draft failures that didn’t include Anthony Bennett near the top, as he is generally considered one of the biggest draft busts of the modern era, but is that really his fault?
Rewind back to the 2013 NBA Draft, the top names at the time included Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, Jr., Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Kansas’ Ben McLemore.
All were considered the top names regardless of whose mock draft, scouting guide or TV report you listened to. UNLV’s Anthony Bennett was mentioned in the top 10, but few thought that Bennett was the top pick, right up until then NBA commission David Stern announced him.
It was an unexpected blessing, that in hindsight has become an unbelievable curse for a player that genuinely has NBA ability and just now shaking the emotional weight of failing at such a high level.
Bennett had success last year, winning a Euroleague championship with Fenerbahçe Doğuş in Turkey, and is currently in the NBA’s G-League with the Northern Arizona Suns. Not only is he trying to play his way back into the NBA, he’s trying to leave the past behind him.
“I guess at the time it was just I didn’t have someone on the team to talk to,” Bennett told Basketball Insiders. “Didn’t happen in Cleveland. In Minnesota, I kind of had Wiggins and all the young guys, but I didn’t want to open up to them.”
Bennett admits that he didn’t know how to deal with all of the things going on in his career and struggled to open up, choosing to internalize his struggles, which only made things worse.
Imagine for a moment unexpectedly being the top overall pick and failing. Bennett got injured early in the draft process and underwent surgery. He gained a ton of weight while rehabbing and was never able to get himself right from a physical standpoint. Then, he was traded and then traded again. Suddenly, he found himself spiraling downward as things slipped from his grasp.
“It wasn’t until I got to the Raptors, when I was with Luis Scola, that’s kind of when everything just changed,” Bennett recalls. “I saw how he worked and you know he was on my side because he saw how I played in FIBA. He was like ‘This is not how you play, you know just play it free, play it loose. I know how you do, just go out there and play’. That’s when I kind of followed him and he walked me through what his day was like, his routine. And then again in Brooklyn, he was there as well. That was where things started flowing for me, but things didn’t go right in Brooklyn then I went out to Turkey. At the same time, I wasn’t going to let that routine stop.”
Bennett spent his summer at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, training twice a day with NBA players like New York’s Kyle O’Quinn and Philadelphia’s Amir Johnson. He was looking for a chance in the NBA.
“I was trying to go to the Suns,” Bennett explained. “There was just a whole bunch of injuries at the wrong time. I felt nice with hard work during the summer. I felt like I was ready to go but just at the time everything just kind of hit me. It was my back, my ankle, just a lot of things I couldn’t really push through.”
The Suns suggested Bennett consider the G-League as a means to stay in their program.
“I definitely got the opportunity to come down here, still show what I got, still stay close to home. I have a 5-month old son and you know I don’t want to go too far especially with him being here.”
After Bennett’s success in Turkey he had a number of high dollar international offers.
“It was different out there. Everything switched, it just completely switched. Going to a whole different country on the other side of the world pretty much,” Bennett said of his experience in Turkey.
“I didn’t know any Turkish at all. So, I was like an alien out there. But you know I am thankful to the guys that helped me out, brought me in, welcomed me with open arms when I was over there. They showed me the ropes, pretty much made sure I learned the plays. It was definitely tough, especially playing for a coach like Obradović. He just wants perfection every time and it kind of changed the way I look at things now, I guess. But it was definitely a great experience.”
Spending any amount of time around Bennett, it becomes clear that he’s finally found some peace with everything behind him. He just plays and plays loose, something he wasn’t able to do in previous stops in the NBA.
“I got nothing to prove,” Bennett said with a smile. “I’m out here with all these guys just trying to win games. At the end of the day, just trying to get everybody involved. I know my role and I am just trying to fulfill that to the best of my abilities.”
Some of that sounds cliché, but there is some truth to how Bennett approaches the game now.
“I wouldn’t say it’s more drive, it’s just every time I work out I know what I can do,” Bennett explained. “I know what I need to work on, and I need to know what I can improve on. I take workouts very seriously. I try to be the best. Do a lot of things like push myself like during workouts, even if I’m tired during workouts. That’s one of the things I try to do the most.
“Working out in Vegas, at Impact throughout the whole summer, with all those guys coming in, playing in runs. It was just like an opportunity for me to go because I never really got that up and down feel for a long time. Just play free and that’s what it was in the summer and that’s what kind of got everything going.”
Bennett is far and away the most notable name on his team’s roster. It would be easy for them to treat him differently, as his story isn’t like many of theirs, but the connection they all seem to share is genuine and that’s been helpful for Bennett too.
“Everybody’s pretty cool. We laugh and joke but at the same time when things get down to it we’re pretty serious in what we need to do,” Bennett said. “Everybody just treats everybody like family. I could talk to anybody about anything that’s going on. Everybody is all ears and that is one thing that I’ll say is different. It’s not just everybody trying to get theirs. Like at the NBA level, if you talked to someone in the same position, they may use that against you and tell coach or whatever. But here everybody is just on the same playing field.”
It is easy to write Bennett off as a draft bust, but when you look at the 2013 NBA Draft class today, Bennett was hardly the only player that never lived up to the draft status.
Equally, Bennett didn’t select himself number one overall. He just has to find a way to live with that burden. The 24-year old from Ontario, Canada seems like he is figuring out how to do that for the first time in his career, its likely why he’s playing some of the best basketball since his UNLV days.
Bennett may never be the franchise NBA player some expected when he was the first name called in 2013, but it’s pretty clear that the still young Canadian isn’t giving up, even though so many people have tried to write him off.
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