He Can Ball
After becoming the first Canadian to be picked No. 1 in the Draft, happy-go-lucky Anthony Bennett should become a force in the NBA.
Anthony Bennett is not angry enough. He’s here in Tarrytown, NY, at the 2013 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot, and a bearded photographer about a foot shorter than him is looking for a very specific shot—one that requires this year’s No. 1 Draft pick to hold a basketball with his right hand well above his own head, as if he’s about to dunk on an unseen hoop, then furrow his brow and let out a primal scream that demonstrates the emotion expected when a player throws down a mean dunk all over an unsuspecting defender.
Thing is, Anthony is a pretty smiley guy, and for him this is a cheery August day planted smack in the middle of a summer that’s featured a gang of reasons to keep an ear-to-ear grin glued to his 20-year-old face. So, no: the Cavs’ rookie-to-be is not up for emitting the needed display of fury at the moment. At least not without immediately bursting into a fit of giggles, ruining the shot and necessitating yet another do-over.
But why shouldn’t Bennett be allowed to ignore non-existent feelings of rage in favor of some authentic joy? Life has been damn good for the Toronto native as of late. Back in June, at the NBA Draft, he was chosen first by the Cleveland Cavaliers, a move that seemed to catch everyone off guard—Anthony, the fans who filled the Barclays Center’s stands, those broadcasting the Draft on television. Even reporters who specialize in breaking every pick on Twitter minutes before the selections are publicized were muted until David Stern made the announcement. “I had to hug a lot of people,” Anthony says by phone a week after the photo shoot. “It was a real crazy moment. It was all a blur. There were people screaming, there were people in shock. They put it on the big screen and, like, everybody was holding their mouth.”
It was the official starting point of a fresh chapter in a journey that began in the rough-and-tumble Jane and Finch neighborhood of Toronto, Canada. You won’t find a description of Jane and Finch that doesn’t detail the neighborhood’s high crime rate and large concentration of gang activity, which, to a young Anthony, meant one thing: Stay off the streets at night.
Anthony’s mother Edith worked two nursing jobs—at a rehabilitation center from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then at a mental hospital from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.—so she was rarely home to be sure her youngest son was staying off the crime-infested streets after dark. (As of this summer, her son’s new income means she can stop abiding by such hours; Anthony says his mom will continue to work, but on a more relaxed, part-time basis.) She’d smartly call the house around 9:30 p.m., after the sun disappeared and the streetlights flicked on, and if Anthony—nor his older brother (Sheldon, now 35) nor older sister (Danielle, now 29)—didn’t answer the phone, Edith knew something was up. “She’d come back home and be like, ‘Where were you?’” Anthony says. “I was like, I was home, sleeping. She wasn’t having it.” The punishment? “It was just like no games for a week.” He smiles. “It was rough at the time.”
He spent hours and hours at the Boys & Girls Club in Jane and Finch, hanging with friends and slowly learning the game of basketball. “All I could really do back then was shoot,” Anthony says. “I just stood in the corner and launched ’em up.”
Despite his lack of both height and bulk as a youngster, Bennett was gifted athletic genes—in her hometown of Ewarton, Jamaica, his mother had played netball, a derivative of basketball in which dribbling is banned, and ran for her school’s track and field team. When Anthony was 10, Edith moved the Bennetts to Brampton, a considerably safer suburb of Toronto. There, Anthony was able to play out on the street all day and night without his mother having to worry that harmful activities would creep into his and his friends’ lives. Money remained tight, though, and when Anthony wanted an authentic Carmelo Anthony jersey, he took one look at the $300 price tag and scooped up the $70 replica instead.
The move to Brampton meant no more days spent at the Boys and Girls Club, which meant no more days spent working on that corner jumpshot. He avoided basketball entirely for a few years, then began to re-acquire his skills when he joined a league between eighth and ninth grade. “I shot from, like, behind my head,” Bennett laughs. “I had no athleticism. I tried to go back to how I shot in my old neighborhood. Keep your forearm at the L and all that.”
He picked it all back up soon enough, and in 2009 he headed down to West Virginia to attend and hoop at Mountain State Academy. That’s where he realized he could have a real future in basketball, and when the prep school closed down a year later, Bennett relocated to Las Vegas to play at the famed Findlay Prep. He tacked a piece of paper with a list of goals to his bedroom wall—become a McDonald’s All-American, make the Jordan Brand Classic, suit up at the Nike Hoop Summit—and he’d glance at it before going off to practice every afternoon. His height sprang up to 6-8, and he jokingly kept a list in his head of the number of opponents he posterized. He quit counting after he hit 100.
But Bennett’s game was more than just raw athleticism—he could shoot from all over the floor, create off the dribble and developed a soft touch around the rim. He became a force at Findlay Prep, where he averaged 16.3 points and 10.1 rebounds as a senior, leading his team to a 32-1 record and helping the school win its third ESPN National High School Invitational Championship.
The inevitable college recruiting battle took place over the course of 2011 and 2012, with nearby UNLV using its geographic advantage to score the talented young forward. “The day that I got the UNLV job [I began recruiting Anthony], which would’ve been back in April of 2011,” says UNLV head coach Dave Rice. “He was a high priority from the time that I got the job and put our staff together.”
Bennett scored 22 points off 9-13 from the field in his first regular-season game for UNLV; on December 9, against Cal, he put in 25 while grabbing 13 rebounds and leading his team to a tight 76-75 win. “Just his composure in a pressure-packed game, the plays that he made, the rebounds that he got—his maturity as a basketball player and his emergence as one of the top players in the country was very obvious,” Rice says.
He averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 boards throughout a solid freshman campaign, but what shocked Rice and many of the NBA scouts who camped out at all of UNLV’s games was how supportive of a teammate Bennett proved himself to be on the court. He was the first to pick up a teammate off the ground, first to congratulate a teammate on a big shot and first to deliver words of encouragement when a teammate was slumping. During the squad’s first exhibition game, a UNLV player was walking off the floor when Rice, who was standing up and barking instructions to his players, saw someone walking to the court out of the corner of his eye. “I’m like, What’s going on?” Rice says. “And it’s Anthony, who came off the bench to greet the player that was coming off the floor and give him a high five.
“When Anthony was coming off the floor he would give everyone, including our support staff, a high five before he sat down,” Rice continues. “If I had a situation where I was getting on somebody in the huddle, he’d get up and put a hand on their shoulder to reassure him.”
Bennett, naturally, is nonchalant regarding this tendency. “I’ve been doing that since I started playing basketball,” he says. “Even if [my teammates] have a good game or a bad game, just staying by their sides, trying to push them. It’s something I’ve been doing for a while.”
In the rare NBA Draft without a clear-cut No. 1 pick, this intangible may have been what pushed Bennett ahead of the other highly ranked prospects. It certainly grabbed Cavaliers GM Chris Grant’s attention. “You’re obviously impressed with the size, the skill, the athleticism,” Grant says. “I was just really impressed with him as a teammate—running over and picking teammates off the floor, high-fiving them, [being] very engaged and interactive with his team and coaching staff.”
Top picks are generally thrown into the fire pretty quickly, but Bennett—who in May underwent shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the majority of the summer and had just started playing 5-on-5 as we went to press—is not exactly being handed the keys to the franchise just yet. New head coach Mike Brown has said Bennett will be used strictly as a power forward when the season begins, and the Cavs’ congested frontline also includes newly signed center Andrew Bynum, now-healthy Anderson Varejao and second- and third-year guys Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson.
“I think we’re in an interesting spot where as a No. 1 pick he is probably not going to start,” Grant says. “A lot of No. 1 picks walk in the door and are starters, but we’ve got some good young talent that’s ahead of him, which will make it good for him because it’ll be very competitive and give him a chance to grow and learn in practice.”
Which Bennett, ever the consummate teammate, doesn’t seem to mind. “[Not starting] doesn’t really matter to me. Me being surrounded by all these players that have played in the League before, I can grow off that—they can tell me a lot of advice. I can see how they play in certain situations.”
Here’s one situation the kid has already conquered: an NBA photo shoot. Back on that August afternoon, after a few failed efforts at bringing the ruckus required to help the photographer get his mid-dunk money shot, Bennett gets serious. He takes a few steps back and literally wipes the smile off his face with his left hand, a wave of focus settling over him.
Sure, he was only prepping for a quick pose, but he might as well have been prepping for the next stage in his basketball career, entering a semi-uncertain setting where a crowded frontcourt and a host of other factors await to potentially derail what could (and should) be an excellent rookie season. He’ll undoubtedly remain the same nice guy he’s always been, but he’ll need to display some relentless ferocity to compete with teammates for playing time and opponents for on-court success.
Bennett inhales deeply, then launches his body forward, jerking the ball up high and releasing a yell that originates somewhere in the pit of his stomach, a yell so loud it could probably be heard all the way up at the Jane and Finch Boys & Girls Club. It’s a yell that sounds as if it’s announcing an arrival.