On Jan. 9, the Nets released struggling 23-year-old power forward Anthony Bennett after he sputtered along to five points per game on 41 percent shooting from the field.
In most cases, NBA news like this would be just a footnote in a long day of transactions. Players get released and picked up all the time, especially around this time of the year when 10-day contracts are in play. However, most players released at 23 years old are not former No. 1 overall picks who have been let go by their fourth team in four years.
Indeed, it’s possible that, barring substantial and unlikely improvement, we’ve seen the last of Bennett in the NBA. Where did it go wrong? How did Bennett become the answer to the trivia question, “Who is the biggest No. 1 overall bust in NBA history?”
“I had Bennett ninth on my board (before the 2013 NBA Draft),” one NBA executive said. “I was shocked the Cavs took him at one. But having said that, I’m even more shocked he’s out of the league. I didn’t think that would ever happen. I said to myself at the time, ‘that’s a bad pick, but he’ll probably be a solid sixth man or fifth starter.’ Not, ‘that’s a bad pick, this dude will be out of the league.’
Talk to people who work in NBA front offices, and that’s what you’ll hear. The Cavaliers set Bennett up for failure by placing the expectations of the No. 1 overall pick on his shoulders. But in a weak draft where, for the first time since 2006, no singular player or duo of prospects had established themselves as potential No. 1 overall picks, it wasn’t indefensible from their perspective to make him the first-ever top pick from Canada.
The Cavaliers, to varying degrees, considered as many as six players for the No. 1 overall pick that season: freshman Nerlens Noel, second-year players Alex Len, Otto Porter, and Ben McLemore, junior Victor Oladipo and Bennett. None of the Len, Noel or Bennett group could work out pre-draft due to injury. Porter and Oladipo were considered “lower ceiling” prospects that would likely max out as solid starters — something that’s largely borne itself out thus far. McLemore tanked his draft stock after showing up to workouts overweight and unprepared. This was one of those cases where it was going to be difficult for the Cavs to win, regardless of their decision.
“As they were getting down to the end, I think (Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant) wanted to find a reason for him to be the guy,” another NBA executive said. “There wasn’t an obvious choice among the other guys. It wasn’t a great draft. They were always going to have to talk themselves into a guy they knew had flaws.”
In the end, they trusted their scouting department and chose Bennett. It was still a surprise not only to the basketball world, but also to Bennett himself that he was selected first.
“I’m just as surprised as everybody else,” Bennett said on draft night. “I had no idea. When they said my name, that’s when I knew.”
Still, there was a lot to like at the time. In his lone year at UNLV, Bennett proved himself to be a diverse offensive weapon who was as adept at rising up for a thunderous, powerful dunk as he was at stepping away from the hoop and hitting 3s. He scored 16.1 points and grabbed 8.1 rebounds per game while putting up a near 61 percent true-shooting percentage and a 26.2 PER. It may not seem like it now, but there was a lot to like about his offensive game. He hit 37.5 percent of his 3s and finished in the 94th percentile in finishing around the basket on non-post-ups in the halfcourt, according to Synergy. He also showed off a post game that got him nearly one point per possession, good for the 72nd percentile.