Nothing has come easy for Anthony Bennett over the past three years. Since being drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013, Bennett has played for four professional teams – the Cavs, Timberwolves, Raptors and Raptors’ D-League affiliate – battling injuries along the way.
He’s now a member of the Brooklyn Nets and that didn’t come easy either. Bennett had to prove himself to general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson during a minicamp, hustling on the floor at the HSS Training Center with guys looking for their first NBA job, rather than their fourth.
“We had him in for mini camp and we obviously liked what we saw,” Marks said. “He had taken the steps ahead of time to get himself in shape. He showed up, his body looked terrific and how he conducted himself during that week here not only on, but off the court too, just getting to know him. He’s well aware that this is terrific opportunity for him. He needs to make the most of it and he’s hungry. We’ll see, really the ball is in his court now.”
Bennett is happy to have another chance to fulfill the promise of the player who put up 16 ppg and 8.1 rpg at UNLV.
“This is pretty much a brand new start,” Bennett said. “It is a process; it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Like I’ve been saying, I’ll keep saying it, I’ve been working every day just trying to better myself offensively and defensively and I feel like this year it’ll pay out a lot.”
The Nets are betting on Bennett, too. Atkinson said he’s had his eye on the power forward for a while now and his hypothesis is that Bennett still has all the talent and tools that made him a number one pick, but needs to rebuild his confidence after a trying three years.
“I think he’s been torn down a little bit and lost his confidence,” Atkinson said. “In his case I think we need to build him up again. Really kind of narrow down what his role is going to be and then build him up.”
Atkinson see’s a rebounder and a player who can help defensively. That’s how he wants him to start in Brooklyn.
“Rebound the ball, run the court and really help us on the defensive end with his length and size and speed. Then the other parts of the game, that’ll come,” Atkinson said. I think he’s proved with Team Canada he can shoot the three, I think he’s proved that he can drive it, I think he can proved he can be a versatile offensive player, but with his package, we want to minimize it a little instead of expand it.”
“If he misses two straight corner three’s, we’re going to say, take the next one,” the coach added. “Now if he’s not rebounding, obviously that’ll be a different story.”
Bennett shot 33% from deep with Team Canada at the Olympic qualifying tournament with a 6.8 and 5 line. He also had a massive dunk on Italy’s Marco Cusin that went viral, finding its way back to the States. Atkinson said the performances with Team Canada, along with his summer workouts with the Nets and a renewed commitment to his fitness and diet – which includes a water-only provision – all added up to a contract.
“He proved that to us this summer by being here. He could have been anywhere, but he was here every day with our guys,” Atkinson said. “That started to tell us, hey this kid, this is a different Anthony Bennett and his approach is a bit different. Then watching his performances with Team Canada, seeing this guy’s in shape, he’s having some darn good games against some high competition.”
Bennett said he’s already felt some of that confidence and swagger starting to return.
“I’m playing with more confidence,” Bennett said. “It’s not particularly that anything [technical] has changed. I’ve been working on my game ever since I came into the league, going out there and playing with a clear mind.”
Part of that clarity is blocking out all of the negativity from the past three years.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my main focus to turn everybody else’s opinion around,” Bennett said. “I have other motivation, other things that push me.”
He said he’s learned a lot from his transient NBA experience.
“Every year has been a learning experience,” Bennett said. “It’s a business. You just have to be on your A game every day pretty much or someone is going to take your spot.”
At 23, Bennett is still young enough that Atkinson is viewing him basically another draft pick for the Nets – a young player he can mold.
“I’d rather have guys like that than a guy who’s been in the league 14 years and there’s not much upside,” Atkinson said. “It’s exciting those guys are going to get another opportunity.”
It didn’t come easy – and neither will the next step – but Bennett is happy to be getting that opportunity with the Nets.
“[Kenny Atkinson] believes in me a whole lot from what he’s been saying,” Bennett said. “I can’t wait to get working.”