The Toronto Raptors brought Anthony Bennett home on a one-year, minimum deal on Sunday.
Bennett confirmed the signing on Instagram, where he was properly draped from head-to-toe in Toronto sports paraphernalia.
The 22-year-old Bennett will take the Raptors’ last open spot on the roster, where, in all likelihood, Bennett will join Bruno Caboclo and Bebe Nogueira on the bench, or in the D-League.
There were two reactions to Bennett’s signing.
The first: optimism – optimism that Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri landed a former first overall pick for nothing. It was a high-upside, low-cost gamble for Ujiri, who conveniently left a roster spot open this summer.
The second: skepticism – skepticism that the Raptors simply signed Bennett for his passport. Beyond his nationality, Bennett hasn’t shown anything that would be of value to the Raptors in his first two seasons.
My visceral response was the second. I didn’t see Bennett as a worthwhile flyer, and quite frankly, it bothered me that a significant factor in Bennett’s favor was his nationality. I’m not so ignorant to pretend that optics and politics don’t matter, but it gnaws at me that favoritism can taint a meritocratic system like sports.
But this isn’t about that. This is about what Raptors fans could realistically expect from Bennett, because at the end of the day, that’s the decision they made. And while wringing our hands about the process is fun (read: masochistic), it’s secondary to the product on the court.
So here’s what Raptors fans can expect from Bennett on the hardwood next season.
Midrange jumpers. Lots of midrange jumpers.
It’s repeated ad nauseam, especially if you’ve read ANY basketball writing over the past three years, but the midrange area is something of a no-fly zone. Unless you’re LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, or maybe Carmelo Anthony, the shot simply isn’t worth it.
Bennett is nowhere near that level, and yet, 56 percent of Bennett’s attempts originated from the midrange are last season.
Granted, Bennett wasn’t exactly dissuaded from taking shots from the midrange by the Timberwolves, but nobody – not even much-maligned Wizards coach Randy Wittman – would approve of shots like this:
Deconstruct Bennett’s thinking on this play.
First he sets a halfhearted ball screen (expect a lot of those), then he dives into the paint without any thought as to whether he’s open (he’s not) and his hand is up while calling for the ball (he shouldn’t), He then comes back, sets a better screen, and pops into the elbow area to launch a midrange shot while on the move with eight seconds on the shot clock.
Watch enough Timberwolves game film, and you’ll find a similar pattern. Bennett loves slipping the screen and ducking into the high elbow area to launch jumpers. He loves it so much that in most games, that’s all he does.
The typical offensive possession begins with Bennett inbounding the ball. He then trails slowly up the court, before setting a weak ball screen. He usually likes to slip before he rubs off the on-ball defender, before rolling directly into the paint, or floating out to the elbow area to await the over-the-top swing back to him for the 20-footer.
Bennett’s tendencies were accurately captured by shot analytics data, which had 47.3 percent of his possessions denoted as catch-and-shoots (37.5 eFG%), with 37.8 percent of his possessions coming within 10 feet of the basket (58.0 eFG%).
As for Bennett’s high screens, he elected to pop on 74.2 percent of his looks. That’s Patrick Patterson territory, without any semblance of Patterson’s accuracy.
Limited offensive arsenal
This is where Flip Saunders catches some flack. He never really ran anything else for Bennett. Saunders mostly lived with catch-and-shoot jumpers, even though it drove Timberwolves fans mental.
At the very least, Bennett could have been pressed to launch more threes instead of 22-footers. There’s some hope there, as Bennett hit 30.4 percent from deep last season. That’s still very poor, even for a stretch big, but at least it puts Bennett within striking distance of Draymond Green (33.7 3FG%) and Markieff Morris (31.7 3FG%).
On the other hand, I can sympathize with Saunders because Bennett showed very little beyond a semi-functional jumper. He’s not an energy big (rather lethargic, really), he isn’t an easy pick-and-roll target given what little the Timberwolves had by way of playmaking (Ricky Rubio got injured and that was all she wrote.)
Moreover, it’s just a lack of awareness, or perhaps engagement, that makes Bennett such an incredibly frustrating offensive player. Instead of watching the play develop and chipping in where he can, Bennett functions only in two modes. He’s either in the play, in which he’ll try ardently to shoot if he gets the ball without much thought of how the play will unfold, or he’s not in the play and doesn’t cut or position himself to assist the play.
There are also many instances where he’ll just straight-up plug the offense. Here, Bennett sets a pin-down for Andrew Wiggins to catch a pass on the wing. But instead of clearing out and letting Wiggins work against an ancient Mike Dunleavy, Bennett insists on calling for a post-up against a bigger Joakim Noah.
The end result is that Bennett walls off any chance of a drive by Wiggins and forces his fellow canuck to toss up a poor shot.
Quality version: http://gfycat.com/EducatedCoordinatedInsect
Poor defensive awareness
I want to preface this point with a note about bigs who are new to the league. Generally speaking, it takes a long time for frontcourt players to pick up the nuances of NBA defense.
That being said, Bennett is particularly accident-prone on defense.
For one, he gets caught ball-watching rather often. On this play, Bennett collapses into the paint on Manu Ginobili’s drive for absolutely no reason, while leaving his man Austin Daye – who is good for nothing other than a spot-up – wide open on the perimeter.
Or this play, where Bennett literally turns his back to the play to catch a glimpse of a driving Tony Parker. In doing so, Bennett leaves Boris Diaw free on the 3-point line.
Let’s not even discuss this bit of “defense” against Aron Baynes.
Bennett also had a propensity to swipe and reach, which rarely paid off. It’s one thing to be opportunistic and capitalize on mistakes or predictable offense sequences.
It’s another to be pressed all the way up on Jeff Ayres (a non-shooter) on the 3-point line when he’s clearly just trying to make a simple point-to-wing pass.
Likewise, there’s no reason whatsoever to be bodying Pau Gasol and trying to out-jump a bigger player who clearly had him sealed. Plus, what was Gasol going to do? The play obviously had Gasol catching the inbounds and pitching it out to the perimeter to set up. It’s not like Gasol was going to launch a turnaround 14-footer with 23 seconds left on the clock.
(For the record, the Timberwolves were in the penalty in the play above. Gasol toed the line for two freebies at a crucial spot).
Potential to flourish in a more creative offense
For the life of me, I’ll never understand why the Timberwolves didn’t run more high HORNs action for Bennett. Pairing him with a roll man while leaving a shooter like Bennett up high just made too much sense.
Canadian national team head coach Jay Triano used Bennett to great success in HORNs type action. On the play below, Andrew Nicholson (a capable shooter) stays up high, while Bennett dives between the seams of an overwhelmed defense for a flush.
(Note: the play could easily be flipped with Bennett as the shooter)
HORNs has been a staple of the Raptors’ offense for two seasons running. Slotting Bennett into the Raptors’ double high screen sets would best leverage Bennett’s talents, those being his explosive leaping ability and outside jumpshot.
Here’s an example from something the Raptors ran against the Timberwolves last season. For more on the Raptors’ HORNs sets, click here.
Using Bennett as a post threat against smallball fours is another option. Bennett has a quick drop step move that he baits opponents with. After putting his defender on the back heel, Bennett bullies his way to the basket and finishes decently around the hoop with with either hand.
Here’s an example from Team Canada in the Pan Am games.
Standing at just 6-foot-7, Bennett isn’t the type to finish overtop defenders. His advantage, however, is his quickness. When Bennett has aggression on his mind and a little room to operate, he’ll flash the complete arsenal.
You’re simply not going to find a lot of fours that can pull off this sequence.
In Minnesota, Bennett didn’t have many shooters around him. Chase Budinger and Kevin Martin were always hurt and Mo Williams and Corey Brewer mostly looted in the riot on a horrible team. With the Raptors, Bennett will find more room to operate with enough shooters to open the floor for him.
The last point concerns point guard play. Quite frankly, Bennett hasn’t really played with a quality playmaker. He had Kyrie Irving in his rookie year and Irving is certainly capable, but they only played 239 minutes together. Compare that to the 379 minutes Bennett logged with Mo Williams, 376 with Dion Waiters and 427 with rookie Zach LaVine.
Spending some time with Kyle Lowry and even Cory Joseph should do Bennett wonders.
Room for takeoff
Get Bennett into some space near the hoop and he can do things. He’s a very quick leaper and loves to cram it down with two hands. It’ll take a lot of work, both on the Raptors’ part to create space, and also for Bennett to roll smartly and to find crevices, but he’s a good finisher around the basket.
Bennett shot 66.7 percent on rolls to the hoop. I’ll take that any day over some haggard long-twos.
Quick feet + strength = defensive potential
I’m reaching on this one. But I see enough flashes from Bennett to see him as a potentially useful defender with enough footspeed to check bigger wings up through lighter centers.
Bigger threes through small fives?? Are you excited yet???
Defensive versatility is big in today’s game, and quite frankly, it’s the Draymond Green types that has everyone talking – not Andrew Bogut or Dwight Howard.
It’s lazy to draw comparisons between Green and Bennett. The only comp is that they’re both kinda chubby with massive wingspans. If you’re dreaming of Green (or Paul Millsap, as some suggested on Twitter) as comparisons for Bennett, stow that patter.
Green and Millsap showed what they were capable of in college and made immediate impacts in their first years in the league. Bennett was never known for his defense at UNLV and didn’t rate well in the NBA.
But hell, I’ll leave this here anyway.
But there are a few plays where, I mean, I can see where it could go for Bennett if he had more drive and better instincts.
Plays like this, where Bennett shuts down a funky 4-5 Spurs pick-and-roll. He stays on Diaw, doesn’t venture too high to crowd the 3-pointer and shuffles his feet nicely as Diaw drives.
Or, plays like this, where Bennett helps out Wiggins to cover a blazing Eric Bledsoe on a switch. Bennett stays in lock step with Bledsoe, who can’t find a path to the hoop that isn’t blocked by a surprisingly nimble Bennett.
Finally, this play has me the most excited. Bennett sends help on Markieff Morris on botched pick-and-roll defensive assignment from Shabazz Muhammed. And once Markieff finds his twin brother (thanks for helping the helper, Shabazz!), Bennett shuffles over and puts a good contest against Marcus.
As long as Bennett is healthy, the footspeed will be there for him. That, plus his bulk, gives him the foundational skills to develop into a versatile defender. But again, he has to overcome poor defensive instincts, and quite frankly, waning bouts of laziness, to reach that level.
It’s all about confidence
Or so says Saunders in an interview with Grantland’s Zach Lowe.
Lowe: Scouts tell me it’s “between the ears” with Bennett.
Saunders: It’s confidence. But his lack of confidence is about the fact that he’s never been healthy since he left UNLV. You always tell players not to let injuries take away from their talent, but it can happen.
After two lost seasons, Bennett is no longer carrying any kind of expectation on his shoulders. And with at least three players ahead of him on the depth chart, the Raptors can afford to bring Bennett along slowly. Maybe that, plus returning home, could repair Bennett’s psyche.
I’m really reaching.
You get what you pay for
Look, this isn’t highway robbery. Bennett fell to the Raptors for a reason. Thus far, Bennett has shown to be an abysmal NBA player. You can cite injuries (eye, sleep apnea, shoulder; you name it) and poor teammates and uncreative coaches, but there’s no dancing around the central tenet of any job.
Bennett hasn’t produced. Not on offense, not on defense. He hasn’t been productive, so he was traded after his first year, then waived in his second. His $5.8-million price tag was out there. Nobody wanted him. Even the 76ers, who live for buy-low opportunities, didn’t like Bennett for some cap room they weren’t going to use anyway.
But if you squint hard enough, there might be something to salvage with Bennett.
That’s probably what Masai Ujiri sees in this situation (undoubtedly, management is probably helping him “see” the marketing opportunities with the nationality angle, as well). If you cull the No. 1 pick label, if you trim the inefficient long twos, if you narrow his focus and sharpen his drive, and if you give Bennett better players and a functional system to work in, there might be something there.
And for the 15th roster spot on a minimum deal, what else can you expect? Expect nothing and hope to be surprised. That’s Ujiri’s thinking and it should be your’s too.
– with h/t to A Wolf Among Wolves