While introducing his shiny, new first-overall draft selection in UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant was adamant that the bruising and barrel-chested big man would be a power forward, a position known more for playing in the post than along the perimeter. Though the team had a glaring hole at the small forward spot, as they have had since 2010 when then two-time MVP LeBron James left via free agency, the 6-foot-8-inch, 260-pound Bennett was going to provide a compliment to fellow Brampton, Ontario native Tristan Thompson. “You put him in a pick-and-roll with Dion [Waiters] or Kyrie [Irving], he’s going to be pretty difficult to guard because he can shoot the ball and is athletic and can handle the ball and get to the rim,” said Grant. Sugar plums danced as the highlight reel of Bennett running the floor and throwing down massive dunks rolled next to the stage.
The plan was to bring Bennett along slowly, to let him fit into a role and grow as a basketball player. Exactly five months later, still not having much in the way of a small forward with which to work on nightly basis, Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown is calling an audible on his general manager’s initial play-calling. Coupling immense early-season struggles with Bennett as a power forward and the fact that the Cavs have been forced to use a bevy of starting five-man units1 and position changes as they grasp for anything that resembles a cohesive unit, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft could soon see time as the Wine and Gold’s small forward.
“When we drafted [Anthony], we knew he was an intelligent player who had a lot of skill set,” Brown said this past weekend. “We felt that to try to simplify it for him being so young and being No. 1 pick in the draft and having unseen, unspoken pressures that we’d try to keep him just at the ‘4’ to help him out and help the transition coming to the league.
“As time has gone on, Earl [Clark] has played well for us as a backup ‘4,’ so we have to continue trying to find minutes for AB. [Putting him at the small forward spot] is one way we can do it. We’ll continue taking a look at certain things.”
Bennett is shooting just 22 percent through his first month in the NBA. His 10 turnovers equal his 10 converted field goals as he often settles for shots away from the rim rather than utilizing that explosive, athletic, get-the-ball-to-the-rim skill set he showed so much of as a dominant freshman in Las Vegas. It feels like his breakout fourth quarter this past summer was ages ago. Regardless of early-season struggles, it can’t be denied that Bennett still possesses a higher ceiling than any of the other small forward options that the Cavaliers currently have on their roster. Alonzo Gee is an athletic wing who plays solid defense, but is well below average when compared to other starting-caliber NBA small forwards. Earl Clark is a defensively minded converted power forward who has since been moved back to his original position after a failed experiment yielded nothing but frustration. Some fans may want to point to Sergey Karasev due to his 6-foot-7-inch frame, but the 20-year-old is cemented as a shooting guard who still has a lot to learn when it comes to the speed and power of the NBA game. What it boils down to with Bennett is exactly what perception lends: Why not?
On Friday night, as the Cavaliers were trailing the Boston Celtics 33-15 early in the second quarter, Brown went against all prior discussions and tossed Bennett into the game at small forward, having essentially no practice at the position. The positioning, the responsibilities, the spacing on offense and the help-side defense…all foreign. Following the game, another frustrating loss that was a product of poorly executed opportunities throughout the night, Brown called his impulsive decision a work in progress. “It was an experiment,” said Brown. “We may continue to experiment with him there at times.”
It is largely for these reasons, experiments as opposed to certainties, that many wanted the Cavaliers to draft Otto Porter Jr. out of Georgetown. Porter has yet to suit up for the Washington Wizards, suffering a hip injury that is rife with more uncertainty—when it happened, MRI results—than anything. But rather than cramming square pegs into round holes, there would have at least been a long-term plan in place for one of the most important positions on the floor.
When the Miami Heat were in town, head coach Erik Spolestra described the Cavaliers as a team that needs time. A few nights later, it was Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau stated that the entire Cavaliers team is “going through an adjustment.” There’s an element of ‘how much worse can it get?’ at play here, as any struggles Bennett has while playing the small forward would be marginal in the grand scheme of things2
. When Bennett was thrown into the fire in the loss to Boston, it didn’t just catch fans and media members by surprise, it was a first for the player as well as he had never played the wing. Heading into the Thanksgiving night off, Bennett was informed by Brown that more time at the small forward spot could be coming.
“It’s just basketball,” Bennett said of the move. “You’ve just go to learn a new position. I’ve just got to get used to it, put in a lot of reps in at practice. It’s going to come along.”
The Cavs will have two days of practice and an early-morning shootaround before they play host to the Denver Nuggets this Wednesday night. By all accounts, if Bennett has thrived anywhere this season, it is on the practice court, learning, absorbing, dominating. Though Chris Grant envisioned that the rookie out of UNLV would do most of his damage in the post, combining a back-to-the-basket presence with above-the-rim leaping ability, it appears that both Bennett—who potentially took yet another three-pointer while this column was being penned—and Brown have other ideas. The latter is out of pure need. The former? He can only improve from here.
(Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
- Brown has now used eight different starting lineups in the first 17 games of the season. [↩]
- “This whole season has been a giant construction site since opening night, to the point the debris and rubble are choking the air,” wrote Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal this past weekend. “The idea of Bennett at small forward falls right in line with anything else the Cavs have tried.” [↩]