Don't look now, but Anthony Bennett is looking like a real basketball player.
While most of America has been busy ripping on the Cleveland Cavaliers (sometimes deservedly so) and their No. 1 overall pick, both are starting to show signs of life.
The Cavs enter the All-Star break as (technically) the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, riding a four-game win streak. As unbelievable as it would have sounded a month ago, Bennett is a major reason why.
Once out of shape and out of the rotation, Bennett is now beginning to flash his star potential for the Cavaliers.
Bennett has undergone a tremendous weight loss since the beginning of training camp.
By now, most people know that Bennett was rehabbing from shoulder surgery after the draft and had to miss the NBA Summer League. He came into camp around 260 pounds, well above his college playing weight of 240.
Gasping and wheezing his way up and down the court, it was painfully obvious Bennett was out of shape. Before a preseason game in October, it was revealed he suffered from sleep apnea and asthma as well.
Bennett had to get his body right before his game would follow.
In December, one could begin to see a change in Bennett's physique. The jersey around his stomach was no longer protruding, and muscles never before seen began to appear.
According to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, Bennett had cut out a lot of dairy products, scaled back his carbohydrates and loaded up on proteins. He began drinking more water and avoiding juices.
“Just cutting down on a lot of sugar," Bennett said.
Lloyd states in a recent report that Bennett is down "at least 30 pounds" from the start of training camp. If that number is correct, it would mean a playing weight around 230 pounds. He's done a much better job of running the floor lately, and all that weight loss has helped Bennett better display his athleticism.
As a power forward standing at 6'8", 230 pounds is a good number for Bennett to be at. If the Cavs plan to move him to small forward next season, we could see an even slimmer Bennett coming into camp.
For all the early grumbles about his condition and work ethic, Bennett has been nothing short of remarkable losing that much weight that fast.
Bennett's playing time has been sporadic for most of the year.
Overall, he's averaging 12.3 minutes a night, just 24th among rookies. There was a stretch of seven games from January 14-26 where Bennett saw just five total minutes of playing time, despite being healthy and active.
Many cried for the team to send Bennett to the NBA D-League just to get some game action, although it never happened. Bennett himself even said he'd have been OK with the move.
It just seemed preposterous that Earl Clark was taking minutes from the No. 1 overall pick.
Finally, Bennett got his big break in a January 28 game against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Cavs, playing without starting center Anderson Varejao, called upon Bennett for 31 minutes off the bench. He responded in a big way, putting up a career-best 15 points and eight rebounds.
Suddenly, we saw what Chris Grant and his staff had watched all last season at UNLV.
Bennett no longer settled for jump shots and three-pointers. He was aggressive on both ends, even knocking an Anthony Davis shot attempt out of bounds.
Since that game, Bennett has been a staple in the rotation. He's averaged 20.8 minutes in his past nine games. If not for foul trouble (he's collected four or more personal fouls in four of these games), we might have gotten to see even more of Bennett.
Cleveland is also doing the smart thing of entrenching Bennett at power forward after giving him extended playing time at small forward earlier in the season. Keeping him at the 4 will help move Bennett away from the perimeter and closer to the basket where he belongs.
It took three months, but Bennett has finally earned himself a spot in the Cavaliers rotation.
Confidence, Aggressiveness and a Little Bit of Fun
Bennett's improved conditioning was a nice start, but it still wasn't scoring points for him on the court.
For that, he had to rebuild a broken confidence. One that was torn down with every missed shot, DNP-CD and Kwame Brown reference.
Bennett is no longer relying on his jump shot. He's playing off his athleticism by being aggressive and attacking the basket. In his first 32 games, Bennett took a total of 24 free throws. In his last nine contests, he's been to the line 31 times.
Leading up to the game against the Pelicans, Bennett was averaging just 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds while shooting 25.9 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from deep.
In the nine games since, Bennett is up to 8.6 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 46.7 percent on three-pointers.
In a recent 109-99 win over the Sacramento Kings, Bennett recorded his first professional double-double. He came off the bench to collect 19 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-3 from deep.
Bennett was dominant with the ball, even drawing this reaction from Kings head coach Mike Malone:
#Kings coach Michael Malone: "Anthony Bennett kicked our (bleep). I'm sure (former GM) Chris Grant is smiling at home and deservedly so."— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) February 12, 2014
Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal pointed out a key play and some unusual emotion from Bennett during the game.
Bennett let out a little sign of joy and relief tonight after he made his final basket. He took a pass from Kyrie Irving and stepped into a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 100-85 with 4:40 left. As the crowd roared, Bennett raised both arms in the air to celebrate as teammates greeted him following a Kings timeout.
'I was just having fun,' Bennett said. 'We’re winning, we’re playing good defense, that shot was a huge relief for me.'
After all, isn't this what being an athlete is all about?
Everyone starts out playing sports for fun and enjoyment. Some, like Bennett, just advance in their athletic careers further than most.
For Bennett, he needed to taste that success he had so often on a basketball court leading up until this year.
He needed basketball to be fun again.
Looking ahead, Bennett represents a crucial part of Cleveland's reserve core. The Cavs needed a big that can create his own offense and score with his back to the basket like Bennett can. His goal for the rest of the season should be to continue to get comfortable at the NBA level while bringing energy and offense to the Cavaliers' second unit.
Next year, he should be looking to take Tristan Thompson's spot in the starting lineup, after what we hope is a long and productive offseason. Based on talent and upside alone, Bennett could be the Cavs' second-best player next to Kyrie Irving in a few years.
It may have taken some time, but Bennett is finally showing he belongs.
All stats via NBA.com/Stats.