LAS VEGAS – David Blatt, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new head coach, was backed up to the concrete-block wall as far as he could go. A semicircle of media folks, with flip-cams, records and the stray pen and notebook, pressed forward Sunday afternoon at the Cox Pavilion.
Made sense Blatt was in high demand. After all, barely 48 hours had lapsed since LeBron James stunned the sports world with his announcement that he was returning to Cleveland. Andrew Wiggins, the intriguing No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in late June, had just played his second pro game. Then there was Blatt himself, a rookie in this league after building an extensive and impressive reputation internationally, who just learned he would have the planet’s best basketball player at his disposal.
Only, no one wanted to talk about that stuff. The first three or four questions Blatt took all were about a guy who averaged 4.2 points, appeared in only 52 games last season and missed 145 of the 225 shots he launched.
“What is this, the Anthony Bennett Show?” Blatt said, laughing.
Actually, yeah, it kinda was. Moments earlier against San Antonio’s Summer League squad, Bennett scored 13 points and hauled in 14 rebounds in the Cavaliers’ second victory of this event. In the opener Friday, he scored 15 points with seven rebounds against Milwaukee.
Bennett reined in his shot a little Sunday, shooting 5-for-8 compared to 6-for-16 in the opener. But he still oozed confidence, along with the sweat that glistened off a body in far more professional shape these days. The No. 1 pick in the 2013 Draft has shed 15 pounds, as he tells it, but it actually looks like more; he has leaned down and worked hard to gain definition and more freedom of movement.
“It wasn’t really that tough,” Bennett said. “My body is kind of weird. I can gain weight fast, I can lose weight fast. So it was just me maintaining it. Watching what I eat at night.”
The way he looks and has played so far, if that was the Anthony Bennett who had shown up for training camp in October, the Cavaliers might have been on to something. Then again, they might not have Wiggins right now because a productive Bennett might have meant more victories and fewer lottery balls.
Instead, offseason shoulder surgery wiped out summer league for Bennett and a slow uptick in picking up the pro game and his dubious conditioning ganged up on the regular season. He was a non-factor, nowhere to be found in Rookie of the Year voting or on the all-rookie teams. The meager stats he got were often of garbage time variety.
Everywhere the Cavs went, Bennett said he was doing fine, biding his time, ignoring the critics. But after his happier performance Sunday, he admitted that wasn’t entirely true.
“Most definitely,” he said. “Just putting a lot of pressure on myself. Things weren’t going right for me. Just everything just collapsing, just building up. I got down on myself. I spoke to the coaches, they helped me out a lot. Told me to keep working.”
Those were the Cavs’ old coaches. The new coaches feel the same way – what a shock! – and Blatt, the newcomer, says it is clean slate time all around.
“AB has been good since Day 1, since I came,” Blatt said. “He’s really working hard to get himself in shape. He’s really, really trying to do a lot of different things on the court to help the team win, and not be under pressure to do one thing. … It’s a work in progress but he’s doing a great job and I hope he continues in the same fashion.”
Bennett, a native of Toronto who attended high school in Las Vegas before his single season at UNLV, has plenty of support in the stands. That has boosted his confidence even more.
“I see my high school principal here,” Bennett said. “A couple of teachers here, my AAU coach, a couple of friends. I just feel more relaxed, more calm.”
Calm before a potential storm. James’ return to Cleveland has changed the entire Cavs atmosphere, and a young guy like Bennett – along with Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Wiggins – might find themselves winning more and speeding along their learning curves.
The alternative, though, is that Bennett might wind up instead in a trade package with a couple of those teammates, should Cavs GM David Griffin and Timberwolves president/coach Flip Saunders ever see eye-to-eye on a possible Kevin Love deal.
If that means Bennett is showcasing himself for Minnesota rather than Cleveland, so be it. Showcasing is better than warehousing, which is how his 2013-14 season went.