Anthony Bennett: Broken or Ready to Break Out?

Should we all just take it a little easier on Anthony Bennett?

Canadian basketball is on the rise.

The Toronto Raptors are having one of the best seasons in the history of their franchise and they have the whole nation jumping on their bandwagon. Andrew Wiggins is possibly the most hyped baller since LeBron James, but might even be in the midst of being outdone by fellow Canadian Tyler Ennis. Steve Nash, although clearly on the last legs of his career, has won two MVP awards and is basically a shoe in for the Hall of Fame.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Anthony Bennett.

Much like Justin Bieber, Nickelback, and Rob Ford, Bennett’s rookie season so far is not something that we Canadian’s lay claim to very willingly. The term “bust” has basically been his middle name since he started the season without a single made field goal in his first four games as a pro. Things haven’t exactly gotten brighter since then either, as the words “biggest” and “ever” have started to come up to surround the word “bust” and to describe his less-than-ideal conditioning.

Bennett’s first season has been a series of unfortunate circumstances and subsequent missteps. It has been an undeniably bad start for the Toronto native, but the blame might not be solely his to bear. What’s more, perhaps all this talk of historical levels of suck is premature and there’s a decent rookie season and productive career to be salvaged after the conclusion of this weekend’s All-Star festivities.

Under Pressure

One thing we must remember when comparing Anthony Bennett to other first overall picks: he didn’t ask for this. It’s not his fault that the Cleveland Cavaliers chose him over everyone else available in the 2013 NBA Draft.

This wasn’t a particularly deep draft class to begin with and we could pick holes in the games of every other lottery pick without much effort. Would Michael Carter-Williams or Trey Burke have been as successful if they had been buried behind Kyrie Irving in the Cavs’ rotation? Would Victor Oladipo have had the opportunity to realize his potential in Cleveland or would he have had trouble displacing Dion Waiters? Will Nerlens Noel ever have a productive NBA career?

That’s not to say Bennett’s season wouldn’t still be bad or that these other players aren’t just purely better than him, but the only reason he’s receiving the ridiculous level of scrutiny he has is because of that first-overall tag. If he had been selected just a little bit later, he’d probably be enjoying the same relative obscurity of guys like Otto Porter Jr. and Alex Len instead of being subjected to the big unforgiving spotlight that’s been shining on him since he first walked on that stage and shook David Stern’s hand.

Apart from the lofty expectations, Bennett’s development has been hampered by a variety of other inauspicious factors this year. Sleep apnea and a serious shoulder injury have wreaked havoc on his college-to-pros transition period, causing him to miss summer league and fall noticeably out of shape. He arguably rushed back too soon from the ailment in order to be ready for the start of the season, only to have an unstable role on a complete mess of a team once he arrived.

Shockingly Cavalier

The Cavs have been one of the most hapless teams this year in a league filled with them. Despite being an organization that is openly trying to make the playoffs, they have a record of 20-33 and are 26th on our NBA Team Rankings with a lowly nERD of 34.0.

They have gained four players in the top-four range of the lottery in the last three drafts (Irving, Tristan Thompson, Waiters, and Bennett), yet are not considered a team with a particularly bright future. They signed Andrew Bynum this past offseason in an experiment gone horribly wrong, then traded him for All-Star and defensive stalwart Luol Deng in a move that seemed designed to make them playoff contenders.

The problem is, even Deng has been a victim of the Cavalier stink, as his defensive rating of 102.0 on the Bulls has come in at 109.0 since he came to Cleveland and his player efficiency rating has plummeted from 17.3 to 14.6.

The problems hardly begin with the players though, as Mike Brown is widely considered a coach on the verge of being canned and former GM Chris Grant was fired just last week (with his drafting of Bennett widely being regarded as the straw that broke the camel’s back). To say Anthony Bennett came into a hopeless situation to begin with would be putting it lightly. None of this excuses his horrible play this year, but it’s important to question where Bennett’s development would be at this point if he had been in a more favorable situation.

The Numbers Ain’t Pretty

We can hem and haw about what has caused Bennett’s poor play or if he should’ve been the number one pick or not until we’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’ll forever be held to the standards of number one picks that came before him and those who will come after. For that reason, his statistics so far this season stick out like some sort of deformed thumb.

2013-14 12.5 .318 .256 .636 3.8 2.8 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.9

The counting stats are very low, but that comes with such limited minutes. What really hurts Bennett’s case is the horrific shooting numbers. This is where I’d usually dig into the advanced statistics and try to find you a silver lining, but they’re not very nice to Bennett either.

Year PER nERD eFG% TS% ORtg DRtg WS WS/48
2013-14 5.2 -5.3 .350 .396 80.0 107.0 -0.6 -0.055

His resulting effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for twos and threes) is .350 and his true shooting percentage (which also includes free throws) is .396. If you’re not familiar with those two statistics, all you need to know is that those are incredibly bad percentages.

The only player in the league that has played more than 500 minutes this season and has shot worse is Boston’s undrafted rookie Phil Pressey (.345 and .369, respectively). Bennett and Pressey also represent two of only five players to ever play over 500 minutes in their rookie season and shoot that poorly (for what it's worth, Reggie Jackson is one of the other three players and he's currently enjoying a season in which he's in the running for Most Improved Player honors).

The net rating of -27.0 (according to shouldn’t require any further explanation as to why it’s bad. Meanwhile, the fact that Bennett has registered negative win shares is yet another sure sign of a regrettable start. Only eight players in the whole Association have played over 500 minutes and done that this season and Bennett has the second worst negative win share number out of the bunch. Tony Wroten has accumulated -0.7 win shares to Bennett’s -0.6, but in over twice the minutes. Thus, Bennett actually has the worst rate of win shares per 48 minutes among qualifying players in the whole Association at -0.055.

History Ain’t Kind

It’s Bennett’s incredibly low PER that has people holding him up against the number one picks of years gone by. Raw stats like points, rebounds, etc. only tell a very small portion of a story. PER and our own nERD are stats that are meant to measure a player’s overall impact on his team in one quantifiable measurement, while accounting for factors like usage and efficiency that the raw numbers often fail to reflect in a tangible way. Using these types of statistics facilitates comparisons of this nature.

Considering the league average PER is 15.0 and the average nERD is 0, it’s safe to say that Bennett has been below average this season (going into the All-Star break at 5.2 and -5.3 respectively). If you look at the data for number one picks over the last 15 seasons, Bennett’s PER is an eyesore. His nERD, on the other hand, is bad, albeit not on the same level of bad as the PER.

Year Player 1st Year PER Career AVG PER AVG vs. 1st Year 1st Year nERD Career AVG nERD AVG vs. 1st Year
1999 Elton Brand 20.6 20.9 +0.3 1.9 5.1 +3.2
2000 Kenyon Martin 13.4 15.1 +1.7 -5.3 0.0 +5.3
2001 Kwame Brown 11.2 12.5 +1.3 -1.8 -1.2 +0.6
2002 Yao Ming 20.6 23.0 +2.4 7.5 8.7 +1.2
2003 LeBron James 18.3 27.7 +9.4 -4.4 18.8 +23.2
2004 Dwight Howard 17.2 22.1 +4.9 3.6 9.7 +6.1
2005 Andrew Bogut 15.2 16.9 +1.7 1.7 1.5 -0.2
2006 Andrea Bargnani 12.8 14.4 +1.6 -3.0 -3.3 -0.3
2007 Greg Oden 18.1 19.3 +1.2 3.9 2.2 -1.7
2008 Derrick Rose 16.0 19.6 +3.6 -3.1 3.0 +6.1
2009 Blake Griffin 21.9 22.8 +0.9 6.4 10.3 +3.9
2010 John Wall 15.8 18.2 +2.4 -6.7 -2.0 +4.7
2011 Kyrie Irving 21.4 21.1 -0.3 1.5 1.5 0.0
2012 Anthony Davis 21.7 23.9 +2.2 4.8 8.2 +3.4
2013 Anthony Bennett 5.2 5.2 TBD -5.3 -5.3 TBD

Bennett’s rookie PER is far and away the worst of the bunch. Just how different it is from known first overall busts Kwame Brown and Andrea Bargnani is actually pretty astonishing.

While PER has become something of an industry standard stat for measuring a player’s impact, it is not without its perceived shortcomings. It is known for being too heavily weighted on the offensive side of the ball and for not rewarding defensive play as heavily. Furthermore, it is said to give undue weight to a player's contribution in limited minutes.

These factors may contribute to Bennett’s astronomically low PER, given that his offensive struggles have been enormous and his minutes have been sporadic and admittedly low for a player that is facing the expectations of being a first overall selection. That’s not to say that his defense has been good, just not at the same level of terrible as his offense. As for his minutes, the incredibly short leash that Coach Mike Brown gives him is emerging as a possible factor in the stunting of his development (more on that in a minute).

Our nERD metric is a little bit more forgiving of Bennett’s season. That is likely due to the fact that it weighs in defensive rating and is kinder on players that play poorly in limited minutes or usage. That’s not to say it’s a better measurement tool than PER, just that the way it is constructed cuts Bennett a bit more slack.

A player like John Wall for instance, who played inefficient ball at a clip of 37.8 minutes per game in his rookie season with a high usage rate of 23.8, had an even lower nERD than Bennett has had this year, because his negative contributions happened far more frequently. For what it’s worth, Wall (our lowest first overall nERD of the last 15 years), is an All-Star this year. Oh, and LeBron James? People forget how inefficient he was in his rookie season, posting a nERD of -4.4. People seem to think he turned out fine as well.

Nowhere to Go But Up

Now, don’t go getting in your head that I think Bennett can someday reach the heights of LeBron or even Wall. What I’m saying is, almost every one of the players listed above has ended up with a career average PER above his rookie season’s mark (the only exception being Bennett’s teammate Irving, who is still only in his third year and should be granted more time before assessing that).

As for their career average nERD, the majority of the players have exceeded their rookie season’s mark, with the exceptions of Bogut and Oden (injury-plagued careers) and Bargnani (officially a bust). Even the infamous Kwame Brown managed to have a few seasons where he wasn’t a complete detriment to his team.

I know, I know, players getting better after their rookie season doesn’t exactly constitute as news. The point is, Anthony Bennett has played the equivalent of half an NBA season so far and the bust label is incredibly premature. Once the conditioning gets under control and he gets more reps under his belt, Bennett has enough natural talent in him to be a productive NBA player. If you split up his first 32 games and his last 9, there are signs of an arrow pointing up.

First 32 games 10.2 .259 .143 .625 2.4 2.3 0.2 0.4 0.1 0.8
Last 9 games 20.8 .431 .467 .645 8.6 4.8 0.4 0.7 0.3 1.1

Predictably, twice the minutes has essentially meant more than double the production in areas like points and rebounds. The interesting development over the last nine games, however, is the noticeably improved shooting percentages and improved turnover rate. To make the comparison in quality of play for these two distinct periods, just look at the difference in per-36 numbers.

First 32 games (per-36) 36.0 .259 .143 .625 8.5 7.9 0.8 1.3 0.4 3.0
Last 9 games (per-36) 36.0 .431 .467 .645 14.8 8.3 0.8 1.2 0.6 1.9

These two stat lines tell two completely different stories. That second player certainly wouldn’t have the word “bust” attached to his name in his rookie season. Just this past Tuesday, Bennett had his best game as a pro, posting 19 points and 10 rebounds, while shooting 6 of 9 from the field and 3 of 3 from downtown.

Although he has been noticeably better lately, he has still been relatively inconsistent. He preceded and followed up his big game with matching two-point outings. Not to beat a dead horse, but fluctuating minutes were likely to blame there. His last three games, he has played 6, 29, and 14 minutes. Very few players can put up consistent numbers or develop properly with that kind of uncertainty, so he should get a pass as he continues to figure this professional basketball thing out.

When the Rookie-Sophomore Game tips off on All-Star Friday Evening, Bennett will be nowhere near the court. If he is, by some chance, he certainly won’t be wearing a basketball uniform. His omission from the game is hard to argue with when you consider the year he has been having, but don’t be so quick to count him out for next year. The complete narrative has yet to be written on this young Canadian (reminder: he’s only 20 years old) and his play lately could be the first step in him earning a spot in the game as a sophomore next season.