The most perplexing factor in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ selection of Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall in Thursday’s NBA Draft is that he plays the same position as a guy they just drafted No. 4 overall only two years ago in Tristian Thompson. Beyond the fun storyline that they’re both Canadian and that they’re actually both Bramton, Ontario belabors the questions about what you do when you have two smallish power forwards.
Thompson stands 6’9” and has not demonstrated thus far great ability on the defensive end. Not for a lack of trying and hustle but his size does limit him somewhat, especially when the Cavs have played small lineups that find Tristan playing the defacto center position. He obviously still has room and time to grow as a player and given the great strides he’s made already I’d imagine that his defense will only continue to improve.
Bennett, while he bears enough weight to bang down low with the big boys, is even shorter than Thompson at 6’7”. In college he showed that he has the physical skills and potential to be a very good defender. However, he did not always show the effort on that end of the court.
Every top draft pick in the 2013 Draft had flaws. The biggest one for Bennett (no pun intended) is his short height. He’s been described as a “tweener” meaning that he’s not really tall enough to be a power forward but he also doesn’t have the right body type or athleticism to play small forward. When you add that with his questionable effort on defense it does raise some worries.
In his press conference on Thursday night after the draft Chris Grant, while admitting that he can play multiple roles, said that Bennett is a power forward. However, for the Cavs going forward the best case scenario may be that he develops into a small forward.
The NBA is a constantly evolving game. In the eras of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain the league was dominated by big men. Throughout the history of the league GMs have been on a constant quest to find the next great center. Since Russell and Chamberlain we’ve seen Jabbar, Shaq, Robinson, Thabeet, Ewing, and Olajuwon among others who have come into the NBA and had a physical dominating presence. In today’s NBA we are no longer dominated by the big man. While GMs are still searching for the next great center (see the draft buzz that surrounded Alex Len and Nerlens Noel) the league has become much more guard oriented. This past postseason we saw several teams roll out small-ball lineups and play them for extended minutes. In the NBA Finals we saw Mike Miller and Kawhi Leonard start as essentially the power forwards in the lineup. While GMs are looking for the next transcendent player, coaches are looking for the next new edge where they can take advantage of their personnel to exploit the weaknesses of an opponent.
Bennett can certainly function in small-ball role as a power forward. While he may struggle against teams like Memphis who run lineups with multiple bigs and more traditional power forwards, he should be able to exploit those mismatches on the other end with his quickness and shooting ability. But I am intrigued by the possibility of having Bennett play big minutes at the small forward spot, playing on the court at the same time as Thompson and either Varejao or Zeller. That lineup of bigs all on the court at the same time could be a match-up nightmare for opponents and one that could just be a new wave philosophy on how to exploit opponents. While other teams are going small, why not just go big instead?
Bennett’s weight is something of an issue. He is listed at 240 pounds and there were reports that due to his shoulder injury and inability to work out that he gained something like 18 pounds. Bennett denied those rumors in his introductory press conference while not exactly refuting them at the same time. But by all accounts he’s a hard worker and has good character so if he stays dedicated to working out and staying in shape then the weight may not be an issue at all.
Bennett possesses a unique combination of size, speed, and quickness. It’s not often outside of LeBron James that you find a 6’7” 240 lb. guy who can run the floor, catch lobs, and throw down thunderous dunks. That skill set may allow him to be effective playing the small forward position. He has the quickness to hold his own on defense against guys who will typically be smaller. Plus he can use his weight to body-up and bother the smaller guards and throw them off their rhythm. Additionally, his 7’1” wingspan will allow him to give a step to quicker players while still being able to bother shots and disrupt passing lanes. Offensively the mismatch opportunities are obvious because there aren’t many small forwards in the league today that will be able to hold up in the post against Bennett. You could operate him out of both the high and low post, depending who else is on the floor at the same time. He demonstrated in his one year at UNLV that he can be very effective from both spots. Then you can also let him handle the ball on the perimeter where he’s a very capable dribbler and offense creator.
I have my concerns about whether or not offensive-mastermind Mike Brown will be able to scheme ways to best utilize a talent like Bennett’s. We saw last time he was employed by the team how he woefully used LeBron. This time, however, it’s encouraging to see the quality assistants Brown has placed around him. Bernie Bickerstaff and Jim Boylan both served as interim head coaches just last season and have a wealth of experience in the league. Brown is a coach who isn’t haughty enough in his abilities to think that he doesn’t need help. He has shown that while he has his short-comings as an offensive mind, he’s a guy who will willingly lean on his assistants for help in those areas.
I expect the Cavs coaching staff to come up with fresh, creative ways to use Anthony Bennett on the court to create mismatches and exploit opposing defenses. Keep in mind that Bennett is still a rookie and this is still a brand new coaching staff so don’t expect earth-shattering changes over night. But with Bennett’s unique skill set and size the possibilities are seemingly endless for what the coaching staff can do with him. It’s a fun time to be a Cavs fan.