Would a Change of Scenery Help Anthony Bennett Re-Boot His Stalled NBA Career?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 24, 2015

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For the second consecutive summer, Anthony Bennett could use a fresh start.

If the former No. 1 pick is ever going to carve out a successful NBA career, he'll need to find a new home first.

The Minnesota Timberwolves lost a league-worst 66 games this past season, and they couldn't even find a stable rotation spot for Bennett. With another top pick headed to the Gopher State—almost assuredly Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns—Bennett faces an even steeper uphill climb for consistent playing time in an overcrowded frontcourt.

The Timberwolves, who acquired Bennett in last summer's trade that brought in Andrew Wiggins and sent Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, already seem to have moved Bennett out of their long-term plans. League sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that the Wolves are shopping Bennett in advance of Thursday's draft.

That news should surprise no one. Not only are the Wolves likely to give Towns major minutes, but they also already brought in a player with a similar skill set to Bennett's. Minnesota sent a lottery-protected future first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for stretch forward Adreian Payne near the trade deadline.

Payne averaged 24.8 minutes over 29 games in Minnesota. Bennett, who had a head start by participating in team's training camp, logged just 15.7 minutes a night.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 23: Anthony Bennett #24 of the Minnesota Timberwolves before the game against the Utah Jazz on March 23, 2015 at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

The court of public opinion has already entered its verdict and tagged Bennett with the dreaded "bust" label. It's a harsh ruling, though not an entirely unfounded one.

The 6'8" forward has underwhelmed in nearly every area of the stat sheet. Shooting has been a constant struggle (career 39.3 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from deep). This past season's insufficient scoring (5.2 points per game) and rebounding (3.4) averages were both personal bests.

Even if one forgets about his prominent draft placement, Bennett still grades out as a disappointment. Of the 307 players to see at least 1,500 minutes of action over the past two seasons combined, only 11 have posted a worst player efficiency rating than Bennett's 9.5.

That being said, league executives won't likely pass judgment on him as quickly as the public has. While he's clearly still a work in progress, Bennett—who's less than one month older than draft prospect Frank Kaminsky—is not a hopeless project.

"At the age of 22, Bennett probably isn't a lost cause," wrote Derek James of Hardwood Paroxysm. "After a while, a player's draft slot becomes irrelevant and they are who they are."

And honestly, it's still tough to tell exactly who Bennett is.

His rookie campaign was stalled before it even started. A torn labrum left him behind the eight ball, and his conditioning never fully recovered. Asthma, sleep apnea and eye problems only compounded the issues he faced during his debut effort.

"That has been well documented," Timberwolves president-coach Flip Saunders said on Bennett's tough rookie season, via Timberwolves.com's Kyle Ratke. "When you look at the guy that came to the draft lottery, he was there in a sling. Even when he didn't know he was going to be the No. 1 pick, he was hurt. And it just kept on going."

This past summer, Bennett improved his conditioning and addressed both his sleeping and vision issues. He looked like a different player from a physical standpoint, noticeably slimmer and far more toned.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 29:  Anthony Bennett #24 of the Minnesota Timberwolves poses for a portrait during 2014 NBA Media Day on September 29, 2014 at the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx LifeTime Fitness Training Center at Target Center in Minneapolis
David Sherman/Getty Images

But the injury bug struck again at the worst possible time. One day after the Wolves thinned their frontcourt by trading veteran forward Thaddeus Young to the Brooklyn Nets, Bennett suffered a badly sprained ankle. He missed the next 18 games and only appeared in four of Minnesota's final 28 contests.

Granted, that doesn't excuse the on-court struggles he endured before the injury. As Fox Sports North's Phil Ervin pointed out, Bennett's shot selection has been as big an issue as anything:

Bennett shot 42.1 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers, mostly the result of binge-jump shooting, are becoming of a second-round pick that cracked the roster with a strong training camp -- not a guy who shook up every draft board two summers ago when Cleveland took him first overall. That, to be fair, wasn't Bennett's decision, but a high first-rounder with his body type and leaping ability should be capable of attacking, getting his hands dirty and accumulating points the hard way, Saunders said.

Still, Bennett has a ton of talent and an enormous amount of untapped potential.

His combination of size and skill is unique. The total package obviously needs some serious polishing, but he's still the same player who dazzled scouts during his lone season at UNLV.

"He's already one of the most versatile scorers you'll find in the NCAA, as he's capable of scoring inside the paint, making 3-pointers, putting the ball down attacking from the perimeter with either hand, handling the ball on the break, and making his presence felt on the offensive glass," Draft Express' Jonathan Givony wrote of Bennett in Jan. 2013.

Bennett's shooting mechanics are much better than his percentages would suggest. And his athleticism is nothing short of excellent for someone his size (6'8", 245 lbs).

The question now becomes which team will be able to lift Bennett closer to his ceiling.

He's a tad tricky to deal. Because of his draft slot, he holds a massive $7.3 million team option for 2016-17, via Basketball Insiders. Even with the salary cap set to burst like an overfilled water balloon, that's a stiff price to pay for someone with his resume. And the option must be exercised by the end of October, meaning his employer won't get another look at him in regular-season action before making that call.

Unless someone is still enamored with the player he was in college, teams are likely looking at a one-year flier with Bennett. But if they factor that into their trade offers, they might see him as an intriguing buy-low candidate.

The Philadelphia 76ers should give Bennett a long look. They have five second-round picks in Thursday's draft, and a couple of them might be enough for Minnesota to let him go.

The Sixers need more NBA-quality talent on their roster, and they have an obvious itch for long-range shooting. They finished the 2014-15 season with the second-worst three-point percentage (32.0). Nerlens Noel needs room to breathe on the interior, and it's impossible to tell whether Joel Embiid's balky foot will ever let him provide it.

Bennett has to latch one with a patient club, and Philly thinks about the future more than any team in the league. The Sixers have also been linked to Bennett before—he was one of the players they were eyeing in the 2013 Noel-Jrue Holiday trade, via CSN Philly's Dei Lynam—so they were at least interested in Bennett's upside at one time.

Philly also found some success buying low on former No. 5 pick Thomas Robinson. The Sixers claimed him off waivers in February, and he responded with the best statistical stretch of his career (8.8 points and 7.7 rebounds in 18.5 minutes over 22 games in Philly).

Despite losing 2014 lottery pick Dario Saric, as ESPN.com's Chad Ford reported, Philly could have a formidable frontcourt with Noel, Embiid, Bennett and Robinson, and almost all of those players arrived at bargain prices.

Bennett needs to find a team that believes in his ability. His confidence can't be high given the way his first two seasons played out, and the short leash he's been kept on couldn't have helped. He might reroute his career trajectory quickly if he winds up getting the consistent minutes that have eluded him thus far.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  JANUARY 31:  Anthony Bennett #24 of the Minnesota Timberwolves warms up before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 31, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
David Sherman/Getty Images

The Sixers would give Bennett the best chance to snag an important role and, ideally, accelerate his development. But Philly isn't the only potential suitor worth watching.

The Washington Wizards need a stretch big, especially if Paul Pierce bolts in free agency. The Utah Jazz could find themselves in the same market if they can't address that need during the draft. The Toronto Raptors shouldn't close the door on any available power forward, as upgrading the position should be their primary offseason focus.

No matter who Minnesota deals with, it shouldn't expect much in return.

Washington might offer a package of DeJuan Blair and the 49th pick. The Jazz have multiple future second-rounders they could dangle.

The Raptors don't have many expendable, valuable assets, but they could put Terrence Ross in the discussion and see what else the Wolves would be willing to give up in addition to the Canadian Bennett. Greivis Vasquez could also be involved in a bigger Toronto-Minnesota trade, as the reserve point guard recently listed Minnesota as a team interested in acquiring him, via Sportando:

Much like the Cavs last summer, the Wolves aren't selling high on Bennett. But with the very real possibility he'll be even more pressed for floor time next season, his stock seems likely to decrease the longer he stays in Minnesota.

After two injury-hampered, frustration-filled seasons, Bennett needs someone to hit his reset button. If the right team presses it, he could finally get his career off the ground. But if he can't capitalize on his third NBA chance, he might struggle to find a fourth.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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