Anthony Bennett’s NBA career is now one and a half seasons old: 104 games in total, 52 games for the Cavaliers and 52 for the Timberwolves. After a turbulent rookie season and an off-season trade – switching one bad situation for another – the NBA future of the 21-year-old is more uncertain than it has been since joining the NBA as the first overall pick in July 2013.
If there is limited sunshine for the Timberwolves garden, it’s likely Anthony Bennett will get more shade than is good for him. He is caught in limbo on a young team, playing either behind mediocre mid-career veterans or sexier and more interesting basketball talent. Behind Nikola Pekovic, Thaddeus Young and Gorgui Dieng, Bennett ranks 4th in minutes per game, and any possibility of going smaller gets in the way of Andrew Wiggins. Arriving at the same time as Young, Bennett has never been seen as the first option to fill the crater-sized spot left by Kevin Love, with the sophomore having only started two games this season and averaging 16 minutes per game.
In a trade just before the All-Star break, the Wolves acquired 6’10” Adreian Payne, a 23-year-old rookie who was touted for his high-energy play and ability to stretch the floor, adding to the logjam of youth in the Wolves’ frontcourt.
There are good signs that the Wolves are interested in Bennett long-term: in August they exercised their third-year rookie option on Bennett, as well as Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, and in acquiring for Payne they gave away a future pick, partially suggesting the Wolves and Coach/GM Flip Saunders have settled on their ingredients from which they will rebuild. In the short term, acquiring Payne and ditching draft picks is likely to further bury Bennett on the bench as that much more of a premium put on playing time. (When he does get minutes, per NBA.com/stats, the vast majority of the time Wiggins is also on the court.)
If this all sounds familiar that’s because it is, and Bennett’s place in Minnesota is even more buried than it was in Cleveland. As I wrote last year, Bennett spent his rookie season as a Cavalier fighting for minutes from Tristan Thompson, Earl Clark, Alonzo Gee, only to make it more complicated mid-season with the acquisitions of Spencer Hawes and Luol Deng.
The Timberwolves don’t have the playoff pipe dreams that the Cavs had last season — without the dire need to win right away, Saunders can be more liberal with meaningful minutes for developing young talent. As a result this season Bennett’s numbers aren’t impressive but have increased across the board given his slightly bigger role. He is playing closer to the basket, no longer timidly launching threes: he was 13/53 from deep last season and is 5/17 this season. Playing time has also been a little more consistent this season compared to last season with Mike Brown and that 2013-14 out-of-control Cleveland Cavaliers river fire.
Timing has not been on Bennett’s side. En vogue since the mid-2000s and then heinously popular during the analytics boom of the early 2010s, the market for the NBA stretch-four may have peaked with the selection of Bennett in 2013. That once desperate need for centers and power forwards with shooting ability among NBA general managers is subsiding – both because the talent market for these players has exceeded demand, and new players have pushed the boundaries of what that stretch-four role can do (LaMarcus Aldridge and Draymond Green, take a bow). NBA offenses are even asking power forwards to do traditional power forward things: bang in the paint, roll hard, get rebounds.
It’s a whole new world all over again.
104 games old, nothing has been decided about the groundbreaking Canadian’s career. Ask Zach LaVine how hard it is to get playing time on such a young and talented Minnesota squad. Fighting for minutes from veterans on an otherwise young team is a difficult position to grow, but perhaps now that there is now more permanence to Bennett’s situation, it may finally be an environment where he can grow. After a dramatic first two halves, standing steps away from the spotlight, the true grind of Anthony Bennett’s NBA career is about to begin.