Anthony Bennett found the perfect fit in Brooklyn. Now, the Nets and Kenny Atkinson have to rebuild his confidence.
Anthony Bennett hypes up the crowd.
Anthony Bennett was drafted #1 overall by Cleveland in 2013 and was deemed a failure almost immediately. Most of the media and the general public panned the pick, saying that Cleveland had drafted him too high. ESPN’s Chad Ford had projected Bennett as the sixth overall pick, and NBADraft.net projected him to go eighth overall. Cleveland’s front office looked at the skills Bennett displayed at UNLV and concluded that he had incredible upside as a 3-point shooter with power forward size and incredible athleticism. The NBA world concluded that Bennett was drafted way too high, and was destined to be a bust.
Confidence is an important NBA skill, but one that is often difficult to see. The best shooters in basketball are also among the most confident people in the world, perhaps because their performance and success depend on an incredible amount of self-esteem. A player who fears shooting will wait too long to shoot and allow the defense to recover, while a player with a quick trigger finger can get his shot off before a defender can find him. Bill Simmons famously coined the now-popular term for those that stood out, even among NBA players, for never being afraid to shoot: irrational confidence guys.
Before J.R. Smith was traded from New York to Cleveland, he had a reputation as a selfish player. He would take incredibly difficult shots instead of passing to open teammates. When he went to Cleveland, he became almost exclusively a 3-point shooter, and the narrative around him changed. He broke Cleveland’s record for 3-pointers made in a season. More than 80% of his shots in the playoffs were from behind the arc, and he shot 43% from deep. J.R. Smith was able to change the narrative about his game not due to any change in confidence level, but due to his job becoming easier. His role for Cleveland was to stand behind the 3-point line and wait for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving to tilt the floor and create an open 3-point shot. All J.R. had to do was shoot the ball when he got it. And J.R. Smith has never met a shot he didn’t like.
Kobe Bryant was arguably the greatest irrational confidence shooter of all-time, in part because he was good enough that his confidence was never shaken. Before he came into his own as a player, he air-balled four shots in Game 5 of the Lakers’ 1997 playoff series against the Jazz. In 2005-2006, after the Lakers traded Shaq away, Kobe scored 35.4 points per game and shot 45% from the floor. His Usage Rate (the percentage of his team’s possessions that he ended with either a shot or a turnover) was 38.7%, the highest percentage in the history of the NBA. Kobe took more shots than anyone ever had, and was good enough to still be efficient. He set the NBA record for field goal attempts in a game with 50 in his last game—and still managed to score 60 points. Kobe is the all-time NBA leader in missed field goals, but he’s also third in all-time points scored. He was such a good shooter that his irrational confidence became rational.
Anthony Bennett appeared to be a confident player before the draft. In his lone season at UNLV, he scored 15.8 points per game and grabbed 8 rebounds per game as well. He shot 52.6% overall and 38.3% from the college 3-point line. He was efficient from nearly every spot on the floor, finishing well at the rim and scoring well on his jump shots.
Then he began his NBA career. He had just returned from rotator cuff surgery and was overweight at the start of the season, but Cleveland threw him onto the court anyway. Bennett's shooting stroke hadn't recovered, and his increased weight made it difficult for him to be the remarkable athlete he had been at UNLV. He missed his first 16 NBA shots, and his shooting stroke never returned. Bennett shot just 35.6% from the floor in his rookie year and a miserable 24.5% from 3-point range. ?
Bennett fueled the fire of his own draft bust status with his indecision on the floor. Basketball at the NBA level is a game of split seconds. If you wait just one second too long, the passing window or shooting space disappears almost as quickly as it was created. Bennett would hesitate every time he got the ball, and his hesitation allowed the brief windows of space to close.
After his rookie season, Cleveland traded him to Minnesota, where he quickly fell out of the rotation. He shot slightly better from the floor, but still only shot 42.2% from the floor and 30.4% from behind the arc. Minnesota was not particularly willing to be patient with his development and didn’t pick up the team option for the third year of his contract.
He signed with the Raptors in the season after that and had his worst season of his career. Perhaps the pressure of playing in his hometown of Toronto began to weigh on him. He shot 8 for 27 from the floor in just 84 minutes, including 3 of 14 from behind the arc. Toronto was the second seed in the East last season and had little patience for Bennett’s poor shooting. They sent him to their D-League affiliate, also in Toronto, and he shot 33.9% from the floor and 25% on three-pointers. At this point, people were calling him the worst #1 overall pick in the history of the NBA.
One of the strange quirks of Anthony Bennett's career so far is that he has been a force for Team Canada in international play. His elite athleticism (good even at the NBA level, but not enough on its own) allowed him to get to the basket and jump over other players for rebounds. More importantly, he began to play with confidence again once he put on the Team Canada jersey. He even said as much himself; in an interview with TSN's Josh Lewenburg before the FIBA Americas tournament in 2015, he said that "[I'm] just playing with confidence, pretty much,...Just going out there, playing defense, running the court. Just doing the little things first and trying to make offense come to me." He averaged 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in the Pan-American Games, and led Canada in rebounding and field goal percentage in the FIBA Americas tournament.
Bennett wasn't able to carry that confidence over to his season in Toronto last year, but the confidence re-appeared during international play this year. He shot 55.6% overall, including 33% on three-pointers, and averaged 6.8 points and 5 rebounds per game in Canada's Olympic qualifiers. He also seemed to have his swagger back. After all, a player without a lot of confidence would have never attempted Bennett’s earth-shattering dunk over Italy's Marco Cusin:
Shortly after the tournament, Bennett agreed to terms with the Brooklyn Nets on a two-year deal at the veteran minimum with no guarantee on the second year. The contract is a perfect marriage of player and situation, for the first time in Bennett’s career. He will play under noted developmental coach Kenny Atkinson, who will be tasked with molding Bennett into a valuable contributor. Furthermore, there is no expectation of success for Bennett. He will get minutes for a Brooklyn team that is looking to have him live up to his early promise and is in need of power forwards, but they can afford to be patient and allow him to fail.
It's entirely within reason to think that Bennett will wash out in Brooklyn, as he did in his previous three NBA stops. His hesitation and indecisiveness may have been affected by his self-confidence, but he may also simply not be a good enough decision-maker to be an effective NBA player. He could afford to wait a second too long in college, and can afford to wait a second too long in international play and still run past people and dunk over them. In the NBA, where the average level of athleticism is higher, Bennett cannot rely entirely on athletic ability to succeed.
Brooklyn will have to hope that Bennett's confidence is the main issue that has prevented him from breaking out at the NBA level. If Brooklyn can rebuild Anthony Bennett’s confidence, and with it his shooting stroke, they may luck into the player that Cleveland had hoped to get when they drafted him #1 overall. In return, Bennett can rebuild his value and sign a long-term deal after two years in Brooklyn.
Signing Bennett was one of the best possible moves that Brooklyn could make. They had open roster spots after both Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson’s offer sheets were matched by Portland and Miami respectively, and they are paying Anthony Bennett the league minimum for one year if he fails and two years if he succeeds. Bennett's confidence may not have been the only issue with his game, but it probably played a role in his failure to launch in the NBA. If Brooklyn is patient with his development and his mistakes, Bennett can still be a valuable piece if he can become the NBA version of what he has been in international play. Even if he might not become the stretch-4 that Cleveland hoped he would be after taking him #1 overall, there is still value in having an athletic rebounder off the bench at power forward--Brooklyn's weakest position after trading Thaddeus Young. If his 3-point shot returns, Brooklyn will have picked up a young and athletic power forward who can stretch the floor for far less than his market value.
It is very rare in the NBA to have a situation that is a no-risk and high-reward move for both sides, but signing Anthony Bennett is exactly that for both Brooklyn and Bennett himself. Brooklyn took a flyer on a player with far more upside than most veteran minimum players, and Bennett found himself another opportunity to prove himself as an NBA player. If self-confidence was all that was in the way of Bennett’s NBA success, he may never have a better chance to reclaim that confidence than he will in Brooklyn.