Gilbert Arenas famously kept a “hit list” of the teams that let him slide into the second round of the 2001 Draft, a perceived slight that he turned into a large chip on his shoulder and eventually three All-Star appearances. Other players scan the names of those selected ahead of them and commit themselves to proving the scouts, the experts and even those rivals somehow wrong for the draft order.
But when you’re taken No. 1 and you’re expected to be best in show, who do you use for motivation? If the target is on your back, where do you aim?
That’s just one of the snags on Anthony Bennett‘s slow start with the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
“You look at your own resume at the end of the day,” said Cavs guard Jarrett Jack, a veteran and something of a guardian these days for the 20-year-old from Toronto who, somewhat surprisingly, heard his name called before all others last June. He has not heard his number called much since.
“Regardless if you’re a valedictorian, summa cum laude or if you were just a ‘C’ average student,” Jack was saying before Cleveland’s game in Chicago the other night, “you gave it everything you had and that’s kind of where the chips fell. So many people put up a measuring stick that’s not for them. Go out there and do what’s comfortable for you.
“People push you into believing you’re something that you’re not. Not to say he isn’t or he is, but it’s very, very early. In the season and in a lot of people’s careers.”
Bennett unexpectedly popped up at No. 1 – where a lot of the same experts and scouts expect to see his countryman, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, next June – for a bunch of reasons. from team needs to Nerlen Noel‘s prolonged recovery from knee surgery. Fast starts by Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams (No. 11), Orlando’s Victor Oladipo (No. 2) and Boston’s Kelly Olynyk (No. 13) have grabbed most of the early rookie spotlight.
Cleveland, gifted in the lottery with the top pick, went in with dual agendas: add another long-term piece like Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, while chasing a playoff berth. General manager Chris Grant settled on Bennett decisively – they phoned in their choice 15 minutes early to draft HQ that night – and haven’t wavered. (By the way, if Bennett somehow weren’t available and the Cavs kept the pick, they likely would have taken Ben McLemore, who went No. 7 to Sacramento.)
The Cavs’ thoughts then remain their approach now, which goes a long way toward explaining Bennett’s meager production so far. He is averaging 0.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 10.9 minutes in seven games played. He has taken 21 shots and made one. In Chicago Monday, he watched wire-to-wire, the first of what might be several DNP-CD stats lines this season.
“It’s a luxury that we have as an organization … to just play him when we feel like playing him,” coach Mike Brown said, sounding more like he’s back in San Antonio than playing from down under with Cleveland. “When we took him, I think he was 19 [actually 20 years 3 months], so he has time to develop just like other first-round picks. When he figures it out, we know he’s going to be great because we’ve seen it already.”
Bennett’s right shoulder is sore, an injury that got aggravated over the weekend (though not the left one that required surgery over the summer). That played into Brown’s decision to sit him vs. Chicago, even though Bennett said he was well enough to play.
The rookie isn’t straining at the leash Cleveland has him on. The key for now is making sure he doesn’t leave too much slack in it, either.
“Coming in No. 1 from the Draft, everybody has high expectations,” the 6-foot-8, something-more-than-240-pound forward said. “This situation, I don’t have to produce right away. I feel like there’s a lot of other players, young talented players in my position and on the team who can help me out along the way. I’m just here for the learning experience and then later on in the season, hopefully I can do my thing.
“You’re not just going to get everything handed to you since you went No. 1.”
The tricky part of going No. 1 seems to be the line that player has to walk — or rather, run. Hurrying to prove how worthy he is of that lofty status while rushing to stay out front of any “bust” label. Most manage it, but a few — Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, Pervis Ellison, Andrea Bargnani so far –do not.
“A lot of people are talking without a lot of experience,” said Chicago center Joakim Noah, who took grief both at Florida and again when the Bulls took him No. 9 overall. “When it comes to being in that position, it’s rough. You’re 21, 22. Everyone has something to say. When things aren’t going well, they’re usually not very nice. You’ve got to be mentally very strong.”
VIDEO: NBA Rooks — Anthony Bennett
One might think that the injury-scuttled debut seasons of Greg Oden and Blake Griffin lowered the bar enough for No. 1 picks to accommodate almost any rookie’s limited impact. But with some second-guessing of Bennett already revving up, he claims his default mode is to “just ignore everything.” He went dark on Twitter, deleting the app from his phone. “I just thought it was the best decision for me, just stay away from all social media,” he said. “Just go into the gym and start working.”
The summer surgery, that grand total of 35 NCAA games and his roots in Canada playing basketball in hockey country made a slow start likely for him regardless of Draft order. That’s one expectation that has been coming true.
“It’s a whirlwind, I’ll say right now. But later on in the season, probably I’ll be fine,” he said. “Transitioning from college to the big leagues, coming off surgery, I didn’t have a chance to work out the whole summer. My first preseason game was basically my first game in a couple months. Still trying to get the conditioning back, still trying to get in shape basically.”
Jack, like so many others, like Bennett’s skills and athletic ability and see in him, ideally, in time, a Larry Johnson-type of contributor able to generate offense inside and out. But that’s then. For now, Jack is preaching patience and wrist-flicking away pressure on his young teammate.
“Pressure is only created by [yourself],” Jack said. “You’re not going to put pressure on him unless you saw him perform, you know what I mean? He went out there and performed well, and he created it. That’s what I mean, it’s always self-imposed a little bit.
“Like the reason they were harping on D-Rose a lot is because you got to see him do great things. He went out and played well, and now it’s like he’s got to do it again. So if you know you’ve done it before, there’s no need to worry about, ‘Can I do it again?’ You’ve done it throughout most of your life. Now it’s just about trying to transition in up here with the professionals.”
Jack was only the No. 22 pick out of Georgia Tech in 2005, but he’s doing what he can to prod Bennett appropriately on one side of the fine line, while dampening demands on the other.
“Obviously you want to come in and,” at this, Jack snaps his fingers, “hit the ground running. But this is the NBA, man. It doesn’t always happen like that. Every book you read isn’t a fairy tale.”
Other stories can have happy endings. For Bennett’s sake, happy early and middle chapters, too.