Can Anthony Bennett Be Kyrie Irving's Co-Star for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Anthony Bennett going as the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday's NBA draft came as a shock, but the pairing of Kyrie Irving and Bennett could become an excellent tandem.
While the Barclays Center reacted with shock as Bennett walked up to the stage while tossing on his Cleveland Cavaliers hat, general manager Chris Grant surely sat back in Cleveland's war room with a grin on his face.
For over five weeks, the Cavaliers had the first overall pick. In that time, seemingly every possible player besides Bennett was rumored to be at the top of their list.
While it made little sense initially—Bennett coming in as an undersized power forward to play alongside another undersized power forward in Tristan Thompson, or possibly with an undersized center in Anderson Varejao—the logic and reasoning shook out as the hours went by.
Bennett seems unlikely to be a perfect fit as a small forward in the NBA, but he's going to give the Cavs a lot of versatility.
For now, it seems as if the Cavs frontcourt will be made of Thompson, capable of playing the power forward spot and center spot in stretches, Varejao, doing the same, only more capable at the center spot, Tyler Zeller, a true center, Bennett, a solid offensive power forward capable of playing stretches at the small forward spot if he loses some weight, and Alonzo Gee, likely their starting small forward at the beginning of the year.
If you'll notice one thing about that group of players before Bennett was added, they're not exactly a huge threat to score, at least not in bunches.
Varejao and Thompson are fine options around the rim—both capable of knocking down a jumper from time to time—but there isn't any new-age floor spacing to be found between the two. Meanwhile, Zeller will hit jumpers sparingly and mostly hang around to clean up messy offensive possessions.
What Bennett brings to the team is offensive versatility, the likes of which Cleveland hasn't experienced since 1995-96 when Terrell Brandon, Bobby Phills, Chris Mills, Danny Ferry and Dan Majerle made up one of the weirdest playoff teams in recent memory.
The main difference is that the new-age Cavs have Irving, who is a bona fide star offensively.
So what exactly will factor into Bennett's development over his first few years, and what about this current Cavs squad could have him on the fast track to being a co-star alongside Irving?
Aside from the Varejao-Irving combination, Cleveland's pick-and-roll game is dying for a big man who can both catch the ball with confidence and make sound decisions once he gets the ball.
Tristan Thompson has been growing in that regard, but most of his improvement offensively in 2012-13 came from cuts to the rim and offensive rebound opportunities.
Cleveland was surprisingly inefficient on the pick-and-roll last season with Thompson as the main pick man. The Cavs were generally more successful when Irving went into isolation.
While it's hard to blame Thompson for not picking up the subtle nuances of the pick-and-roll quicker, it was a bit frustrating for the Cavs when their best option was more of the same-old isolation play that they used with LeBron James.
Moving forward, Bennett will be able to use his skill with the ball along with his big frame to set screens and run the roll with Irving or even Dion Waiters, who is more than capable with the ball in his hands.
GM Chris Grant summed it up nicely following the draft, telling Tom Withers of the Associated Press, "You put him in a pick and roll with Dion or Kyrie, he's going to be pretty difficult to guard because he can shoot the ball and is athletic and can handle the ball and get to the rim."
Not only is it the roll that's going to give defenses fits, but his ability to float out after the pick and hit a shot will start to become key to Cleveland's offense.
Today's prototypical power forward can handle the ball a bit, contend with a point guard on the pick-and-roll and space the floor with a solid jumper.
Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett really got the ball rolling on this one, and they were followed by guys like Chris Bosh, David West, Pau Gasol, David Lee, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Millsap and now Serge Ibaka and Kevin Love.
Bennett's lone year at UNLV saw him shoot 53.3 percent from the floor, 37.5 percent from the three-point line and 73 percent at the rim.
When a player is able to finish strong or shoot a jumper, there's a constant worry about what he's planning to do next.
Set a few screens for him, and defenses will be forced to over-rotate and either leave somebody uncovered or give up an easy path to the rim.
For Bennett, size is both a concern and a blessing, depending on which direction his weight trends as we near training camp.
While he's too heavy at this point (240 lbs) to realistically play at the small forward spot for more than stretches at a time, that also makes him an overpowering force on the block when playing against a smaller player.
Defensively, he's going to struggle to chase quicker players around, but if matched up against a bigger man, he's at least got the muscle and the wide body to keep his opponent in check.
He's going to take some refining, but losing a bit of weight before camp shouldn't be an issue.
Bennett isn't known for his defense.
He's not incredibly fleet of foot, and his lateral quickness is subpar. However, if there's one positive about Cleveland's offseason so far, it was rehiring Mike Brown.
Brown got a lot of guff for not being able to run much of an offense with LeBron James around, and he lasted all of five games with the Lakers, but his defensive scheming is on par with some of the best coaches in the league.
You can't go hiding a player as important as Bennett on defense, but you can improve his technique, shave off a few pounds and plan so that he's got somebody to help bail him out if things go awry.
James wasn't a great defender upon his arrival in the league, even given his incredible athleticism.
When the Cavs ditched Paul Silas in 2005 and brought in Brown the following season, changes were in progress. In his second year with the team, the Cavs had the fourth-best defense in the NBA.
Starting in 2009, LeBron went on to be named to five consecutive All-Defensive first teams.
Bennett is 20 years old, joining a team that had just two players over 25 of its nine most-used guys for the season, with a new head coach on the way.
The problems that we see today won't be the same ones that we see a year from now, and the positives could be even further highlighted. As long as Bennett comes to work for the Cavs, he'll be in a position to succeed from the minute he steps on the court with Irving.
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