For Bentil, Barber, Pistons camp another chance – a year later – to realize NBA dreams

Ben Bentil and Cat Barber both came to Auburn Hills in June 2016 hoping to hear their name called on draft night.
Kent Smith/Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Ben Bentil and Cat Barber returned a year after their predraft workouts for the Pistons to their practice facility, this time for a cattle call of NBA wannabes.

To some, that’s proof enough that they blew it by leaving college early – after Barber’s junior season at North Carolina State and Bentil’s sophomore year at Providence.

Barber and Bentil see it differently.

Unless Barber was going to grow 6 inches by spending a senior season at North Carolina State, chances are he would have gone undrafted this year, too – in a draft considered deeper than the 2016 class.

“I feel like going through the process taught me a lot,” Barber said. “If I would’ve stayed and I came out this year, no telling if I would’ve gotten drafted or if I didn’t. I would’ve been doing the same process that I’m doing now over.”

Both Barber and Bentil hoped to be late first- or early second-round picks. Every year, that’s the aspirational goal of scores of prospects in a draft with only 60 slots available. But Bentil, like Barber, feels he’s a better player today for his experiences – training camp with Boston after being picked 51st, a productive run in the Chinese pro league, D-League experience and a 10-day contract with the Dallas Mavericks – than he would have been by spending a third season at Providence.

“Definitely. Absolutely,” he said. “Coming out, you get to play with the best guys in the world – pros. You work out as a pro, treat yourself as a pro. My mentality, my knowledge about the game has definitely grown. I feel better as a player myself now. I feel mature, like I’m ready to take on the world.”

When Bentil pulled on a Mavericks jersey, he became the first native of Ghana to play in the NBA, expanding the league’s footprint to yet another country. He left Ghana at 15 to come to the United States, leaving all of his family behind, though it wasn’t basketball that brought him here but academics. Bentil didn’t start playing basketball until his freshman year of high school.

“I’m kind of a nerd,” he said in flawless English.

And, yes, Bentil is still taking classes in pursuit of his degree at Providence, but his goal is the same today as when he visited the Pistons last June 15 in hopes of getting drafted: to play in the NBA. His passion for basketball has also opened doors for him in the coastal nation of Ghana in western Africa, where he returned last month to hold basketball camps in his hometown and in the capital, Accra.

“It meant a lot. I went to my old neighborhood and I couldn’t believe it. All the old guys and the old ladies that used to see me run around, helping them, they started tearing up and it got to me. I was emotional,” said Bentil, who saw his face on TV and billboards for his return. “It’s going to be a yearly thing, whether I’m in the league or wherever I’m at. I’ll make sure I have it for the kids back home.”

Barber and Bentil were among 17 free agents who are participating in this week’s minicamp the Pistons are hosting. Barber said he’ll attend similar events hosted by Orlando and San Antonio.

Among the other notable names were three former Michigan Wolverines – Darius Morris, Manny Harris and Jordan Morgan – and Michigan State’s Travis Trice. Trey Freeman, who went through Pistons training camp last fall and spent the season with the Grand Rapids Drive, was another. The player with the most NBA experience was eight-year veteran Marcus Thornton. John Jenkins, the 23rd pick in the 2012 draft, has spent the past five seasons in the NBA.

“If you’re not here, then they can’t see you,” Barber said. “I feel like every chance I get to come to a team, I’m going to take it.”

It’s why he came to visit the Pistons a year ago, too, rather than giving another year to North Carolina State. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to making the decision to stay in college or play professionally. To say kids who come out early and don’t immediately – or ever – cash NBA paychecks made a bad decision is reckless as a blanket statement and wrong far more often than not in any individual case.

Bentil looks at it from the opposite perspective. He was one of a select few players in the world to hear his name called on draft night, starting a professional journey filled with possibilities highlighted by – but hardly limited to – the NBA.

“A kid, me, from nowhere, nobody’s expecting me to even be there. It’s an opportunity to hear your name called for 60 people, whether first or second round. I thought it was a blessing. You take any opportunity you can get. I was blessed. A lot of people want to be in my position.”