Draft Preview: Anthony Bennett

UNLV frosh’s shoulder surgery further clouds murky top 10

(Editor’s note: Tenth in a recurring series leading to the June 27 draft. Coming Wednesday: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.)

As if there wasn’t enough uncertainty in a draft with no clear-cut pecking order at the top, throw in the fact that three near-certain top-10 picks are coming off of recent surgeries and can’t work out for NBA teams with millions to invest in their futures.

If they were baseball pitchers, then Anthony Bennett’s shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff might be more worrisome than Nerlens Noel’s ACL tear or Alex Len’s ankle stress fracture. In the big picture, teams might have more pressing concerns about Bennett’s asthma that could limit his conditioning level or even a back issue that caused him to miss time in each of his last two years at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, where the Ontario native played before landing at UNLV.

Even though Bennett comes to the NBA after just one college season, teams probably feel like they have a pretty clear picture of him. Bennett’s shoulder surgery – it’s to his left, non-shooting shoulder – prevented him from traveling to Chicago last month for the combine, but at the 2012 Nike Hoop Summit he measured in at 6-foot-7 in shoes. That makes him an undersized power forward in the strictest sense, but his wing span at the same event was recorded at an outstanding 7-foot-1.

Combine those long arms with his explosive athleticism and what you have is a Jason Maxiell body type, with a rather remarkable shooting touch and ballhandling skills, to boot. Watch Bennett for five minutes and it’s easy to recall another uniquely gifted UNLV forward from a generation ago: Larry Johnson.

Joe Dumars and assistant general manager George David got an eyeful of Bennett in March when four college conference tournaments were held in Las Vegas. Over the first two games of the Mountain West tournament, Bennett averaged 21 points and six rebounds and made 5 of 7 from 3-point range.

Bennett’s shooting range and athleticism might have a few front offices viewing him as a small forward or at least a player capable of manning either spot. In certain matchups, Bennett probably could get by as a small forward, but most see him as far better suited to power forward in the NBA. Bennett, who just turned 20 in March, no doubt will have much work to do on shaping his body, but he’s got a naturally large frame that should easily support the bulk he’ll need to guard closer to the rim. He was listed at 240 pounds at Las Vegas, which passes the eye test.

How would he fit with the Pistons? Much like Cody Zeller, adding Bennett would work because of Greg Monroe’s ability to play both spots up front. Monroe would start at power forward next to Andre Drummond, then slide to center when Drummond comes to the bench for Bennett. In the right situation, the Pistons could even line up with all three in a dynamic young frontcourt that would offer a healthy dose of athleticism, scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and defense. A Drummond-Bennett combination would pose matchup problems in transition as both run the floor well, with Bennett’s ability to grab a rebound and start the running game an added element.

By all accounts, Bennett will present teams with no character red flags. UNLV coach Dave Rice speaks glowingly of Bennett, who made it known when he chose the Rebels over Kentucky and Oregon that he hoped to be able to leave for the NBA after one season – in large part to help ease the burden on his mother, Edith, who worked two eight-hour shifts at different jobs five days a week to make ends meet in their suburban Toronto home.

“It’s hard,” Bennett told ESPN.com before enrolling at UNLV. “I just want to pay her back for everything she’s done. … As long as it takes, I’ll stay. But if I have a great year, I might be leaving.”

Bennett, long on the radar of NBA teams, established himself as a likely lottery pick in the first month of the college season. In an early December game against Cal – ironically, the team that knocked the Rebels out of the NCAA tournament three months later – Bennett put up 25 points and 13 rebounds, and came back four days later with a 27-point, 14-rebound outing. His back issue flared again, briefly, early in the season, but Bennett missed no significant time.

As the season progressed, Bennett seemed to play farther from the rim and, some felt, avoided physical play in the paint. Four times in UNLV’s first eight games, Bennett attempted double-digit free throws. That happened only twice more in the season’s final 27 games. And until hitting 7 of 10 in the tournament loss to Cal, Bennett had gone 11 straight games without attempting more than four free throws, six times trying two or less.

Though his athleticism serves him well near the rim, he needs to work on developing a back-to-the-basket game, but his long arms and ability to get off the floor quickly make him an effective finisher inside, even against taller defenders.

Bennett’s biggest transition to the NBA, though, likely will be on the defensive end, as it is for most young big men. He’s got the physical tools – quick feet, strength and length are always good starting points – but didn’t display the tenacity NBA coaches are going to demand to lock down a spot in the rotation as a rookie.

The feeling at the Chicago combine was that Bennett is a worthy contender to be the No. 1 overall pick, but it’s unlikely Cleveland – which drafted its power forward, Tristan Thompson, in the 2011 lottery – would go in that direction. Washington, Charlotte and Phoenix – teams picking third, fourth and fifth – are all potential landing spots. New Orleans took Anthony Davis to play power forward a year ago, but much like the Pistons could make it work with Bennett, so could the Pelicans. And it’s impossible to project what Sacramento, operating without a general manager still, might do at No. 7, one spot ahead of the Pistons.

But it’s conceivable, in a jumbled draft picture, that Bennett is this year’s unexpected slider. Until the final 24-48 hours of the previous three drafts, the chances of the Pistons landing Monroe, Brandon Knight or Drummond seemed unlikely. Bennett’s medical condition will be scrutinized – and because he did not take the usual battery of physical tests in Chicago, teams are going to want to have their own medical staffs do thorough evaluations – and that could be a tiebreaker for a series of front offices to pass him to the Pistons at No. 8.

Much like Drummond at No. 9 a year ago, at that point Bennett’s enormous upside figures to overwhelm any risk associated with drafting him.

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