Before Monday’s benching against the Bulls — a “DNP: Coaches Decision” — Anthony Bennett had played 7 games in just under two weeks. Bennett has made only one of his 21 field goal attempts in those 7 games for a .048 field goal percentage. He has shot four free throws and made two of them for a total of five points in 76 NBA minutes. He’s been the butt of jokes and criticism around the NBA for his troubles. It’s worth exploring: has any NBA No. 1 pick ever started this poorly?
The answer is an unequivocal no. Neither Kwame Brown, Andrea Bargnani, nor Pervis Ellison… nor LaRue Martin nor Fred Hetzel was ever this bad. Here’s a chart of per game averages over the the first seven games for every number one draft pick since 1954.
|1980||Joe Barry Carroll||5.6||13.4|
(Note, no per game stats were kept before 1953)
What about recent notable busts?
(Admittedly the jury is still out on Vesely.) Only Hasheem Thabeet approaches Anthony Bennett when it comes to scoring futility. Thabeet only scored two field goals in his first seven games, of course he only attempted four.
Perhaps Bennett is unfortunately mired in an awful shooting slump that coincided with the beginning of the season. These things happen. The Wall Street Journal covered this possibility last night. Here’s a list of worst shooting first 21 shots since 2002.
The scary thing about this list is that only three player on it became decent NBA rotation players: Mike Dunleavy, Marko Jaric, and Demarre Carroll. That’s a 33% success rate.
Let’s take a look at another example using Basketball Reference’s streak finder. Let’s see if we can find streaks where players played at least nine minutes and only scored one or fewer field goals. Here’s the list. Bennett’s current streak is at 6 games for that streak. Fortunately, there are some decent offensive players who’ve been that bad for six games in the last 5 years: Eric Bledsoe, Boris Diaw, Zaza Pachulia, Mario Chalmers, Steve Blake, Thabo Sefolosha… but the list is primarily made up of defensive specialists. Only about 15% of the names on that list would be considered average or better offensive players.
My point with all this? There’s lots and lots of statistical variance in a seven game, 74 minute sample, but Bennett’s scoring woes for the beginning of his career are unprecedented for a player of any level in the NBA over the last 10 years, let alone the first pick. Very few players ever put up numbers this bad in any stretch and later turn out to be decent offensive performers.
It’s fair to look at more than just the shooting. Bennett’s 20.6% defensive rebound rate is good for a rookie, but his 7.2% offensive rebound rate indicates how out of shape he is and that he isn’t out-quicking people to the ball, thus preventing him from getting an occasional easy put-back. Additionally, Bennett had only one rebound in four of his seven games. Bennett’s 6 steals and only 1 turnover are a nice sign, though the turnover number is probably from the ball flying toward
the basket some random spot on the backboard as soon as it gets into Tony’s hands. Only one assist in 74 minutes would also be troubling, but I have seen Bennett make some nice passes that led to guys getting to the line and seen him notch some “hockey” assists. The non-shooting numbers are not awful. For any other rookie in his first couple weeks of NBA action, they’d just be considered noise.
I have heard a massive number of excuses over the last week or so about Bennett’s abysmal shooting numbers. It’s true that Anthony Bennett has exercised poor shot selection. 11 of his 21 shots are threes, where he is 1-11. It would help Bennett an awful lot if he was able to park his bottom by the basket, carve out some space and try to score: much like he did in the preseason when he had a 14 point fourth quarter explosion against Orlando. What worries me, is that few of his half court buckets in preseason came from attacking the basket. They came from pick and pops and post-up jumpers. Bennett has only gotten to the free throw line four times in 74 minutes. The man seems averse to getting easy buckets.
In AB15’s defense, the Cavs horrible execution of the pick and roll, and their general offensive putridness also hasn’t helped Bennett — or any of the bigs so far this season. The offense seems designed to get mid range jumpers for guards and pick-and-pop jumpers for forwards. Rarely have I seen the pass delivered effectively to the roll man, or even anyone rolling. Often, the guards are crossing over in front of the screeener, or attempting to split, thus preventing the pick-and-roll from being executed. This cuts down on lay-ups, free throw attempts, and offensive rebound attempts for the big men, all the sources of higher percentage scoring opportunities.
Another excuse: that Bennett is coming off injury and has been newly diagnosed with asthma and sleep apnea. He is obviously very easily winded and still over an ideal playing weight (I’m being nice). It is easy to blame Bennett for being out of shape, but the team deserves significant blame too. Was there any attempt Bennett on a diet and exercise plan to mitigate these problems in the summer? If these health issues are the legitimate reasons that Bennett was playing so poorly, the Cavaliers have done him a massive disservice by not holding him out of games and rehabbing him till he is ready to be effective. But the Cavs have a well respected medical and training staff. If he was not ready to play, they would have shut him down. Right?
And if the health issues are that big of a deal, why didn’t Chris Grant and Co. take them into account when they made Bennett the No. 1 pick of the draft? The Beacon Journal’s beat writer for the Cavs, Jason Lloyd was on ESPN Cleveland, WKNR yesterday talking about these issues, and it’s clear that he has a lot of access to the Cavaliers. “He’s never been coached,” is the term that Lloyd used to describe Bennett more than once, and it seems to be another go-to excuse as to why Bennett is struggling so much. Bennett was also described, despite the previous lack of coaching, as being a lot farther along than Mike Brown thought he’d be defensively.
“I don’t have to produce right away. There are a lot of other young talented players in my position that can help me along the way, so I’m just here for the learning experience. Later on in the season, hopefully I can do my thing.”
The Cavs seem to have put it in his head that he doesn’t need to be good “right away,” which seems to be a ridiculous way of saying, “it’s o.k. if you keep doing stupid stuff.” The road to mediocrity is paved with lowered expectations.
“He’s pressing” is another excuse I’ve heard ad nauseum. If he’s pressing, then the Cavaliers spent a number one draft pick on a player who has problems with confidence and his mental approach to the game of basketball. The top pick can’t just be the player that a team’s management thinks is the most talented. Being the top pick comes with pressures and expectations that the player drafted must be mentally tough enough to live up to. Anthony Bennett seems to be struggling with this.
These observations beg the question: why did the Cavs spend a top draft choice on player with asthma, weight, and confidence problems; who’s never been coached; who they have lowered initial expectations for; and who Mike Brown didn’t think would be very far along defensively?
Could Anthony be the biggest bust in NBA history? Yes. To avoid that fate, he will have to overcome the worst ever start of any number one pick and one of the worst starts, at least as far as shooting is concerned, of any rookie, ever. The odds don’t bode well. Players this bad usually stay bad. The one thing Cavs fans and Bennett can take solace in, ironically, is that the Cavs are so bad on offense, they’re bound to improve. They have too much talent not to. (They’re currently 29th in the league). When this improvement happens, it will help Bennett as much as anyone else. Anthony Bennet is already a statistical outlier for rookie NBA futility. Hopefully, AB15 is also an outlier in his ability to improve his game.