Anthony Bennett and the Minnesota Timberwolves are parting ways. This isn't noteworthy because Anthony Bennett has played well for the Timberwolves. It's noteworthy because just two years ago, Anthony Bennett was the No. 1 overall pick, and now he's getting cut.
Let's be clear about why the Wolves are getting rid of Bennett. It's not for salary cap reasons: Since Bennett's contract was guaranteed, it counts against the salary cap regardless of whether they kept him or cut him. It's not for luxury tax reasons: The Timberwolves aren't approaching that threshold. They're not getting rid of him because of a trade to bring in a talented player, or anything like that.
The Wolves are getting rid of Anthony Bennett because they had 16 guaranteed contracts and you're only allowed to have 15, and they thought the other 15 players on the roster are more useful.
Here are some people they are choosing to keep over Anthony Bennett:
- Kevin Garnett, who is 39 and a shell of his former self
- Andre Miller, whose age actually cannot be quantified in human years
- Tayshaun Prince, who was traded twice last year
- Damjan Rudez, a 29-year-old who averaged 4.8 points per game last year
With a slew of talented youngsters in the frontcourt -- Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Shabazz Muhammad, plus the addition of Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica -- there just weren't minutes for Bennett. Those guys need time to develop, and those old guys can hopefully help. Plus, the Wolves probably feel they're being somewhat generous by freeing Bennett to take a shot with another team.
It's rare for a first-round pick to be released just two years after getting drafted. It's basically unprecedented for a No. 1 pick to get released two years after getting drafted. But with Bennett, it isn't completely surprising. Nothing about his career has been similar to that of the other human beings teams have chosen to select with the top pick in the NBA Draft.
Moving on From Minnesota
He shouldn't have been a No. 1 pick
Normally a No. 1 pick is considered a likely No. 1 pick by somebody besides the team with the No. 1 pick. It's very rare in any sport for there to be a complete surprise with the first pick in a draft.
In Yahoo!'s report about Bennett's buyout with the Timberwolves, Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania claim no other team was considering taking Bennett within the top 10. That seems a tad unlikely. In our roundup of mock drafts published on Bennett's draft day, prominent predictions were putting Bennett as high as No. 3 and as low as No. 8, so somebody was probably considering him in that range. But nobody was buying Bennett at No. 1.
To be fair, the 2013 draft wasn't great: if you redid it right now, either Nerlens Noel (the No. 6 pick), Giannis Antetokounmpo (No. 15) or Rudy Gobert (No. 27) would be the first pick. But the point is that ex-Cavs GM Chris Grant took a major gamble with Bennett, and it didn't pay off. Grant was fired midway through Bennett's rookie season and hasn't found an NBA GM gig since.
He hasn't been treated like a No. 1 pick
Both teams that have had the opportunity to work closely with Bennett have very quickly decided he wasn't worth much to their team. This just does not happen to No. 1 picks.
Bennett was the only top pick not to start a single game in his rookie season, as far back as basketball-reference.com keeps "Games Started" as a stat. In his second season, he started three games, which is the fewest starts of any top pick in their second season by a large margin.
Top picks have been traded quickly in their NBA careers. Chris Webber got traded on draft night. Joe Smith got traded two years into his career as he approached the end of his rookie deal. Like Bennett, 1989 No. 1 pick Pervis Ellison got traded just a year into his career, with the Kings getting two players and three draft picks in return. The 1977 top pick Kent Benson got traded two years into his career for Bob Lanier, and 1976 top pick John Lucas got traded two years into his career, so the Rockets could sign Rick Barry. It happens.
And on rare occasions, top picks have been dropped by their NBA teams without getting anything in return. Greg Oden got released five years after getting drafted, thanks to a slew of injuries more or less ended his career. The No. 1 pick in 1971, LaRue Martin, decided to retire after just four seasons.
Bennett has had both happen. He was traded a year into his career, but unlike Webber and Ellison and Benson, he wasn't really the prime aspect of his trade -- he was somewhat of a throw-in in the Kevin Love trade. And then he was released two years into his career -- not due to injuries, not due to his desire not to play, but just because the team needed a roster spot.
To find another player waived within two years of getting picked No. 1 overall, we'd have to go all the way back to 1965, when the Knicks dropped 1963 No. 1 overall pick Art Heyman. Suffice it to say, NBA was a much, much different place in 1963.
He hasn't played like a No. 1 pick
Oh, man, he has not even come close.
Bennett's rookie season was a disaster. He couldn't crack the starting lineup of a 33-win team hypothetically trying to facilitate his growth. In January of his first year, we chronicled the horror show, with the gap between his PER and the second-worst PER of a top pick in the past 25 years (Kwame Brown) about the same as the gap between Brown and a great No. 1 pick (Kyrie Irving.)
His stats got a bit better as the year went on, but he still had the lowest points-per-game of any top pick (just 4.2, one of just four picks in that time span below 10) and the lowest rebounds-per-game of any top pick (Allen Iverson and many other guards included.) He took a high percentage of threes, and shot 25 percent from deep. The on/off stats indicate he made the Cavaliers worse by playing.
His on-court issues were coupled with signs he wasn't quite dedicated to the gig. He was criticized for weight problems throughout his rookie year, and his play looked lackadaisical at times. But he supposedly changed his attitude and fixed his body after being traded to the Timberwolves as part of the Kevin Love deal.
Except Bennett's sophomore season was barely better. With the Timberwolves, he failed to crack the starting lineup of a 16-win team hypothetically trying to improve his growth. He got a few more minutes, but if you adjust for playing time, he barely improved: He went from 11.8 points-per-36 minutes to 12.0, and from 8.4 rebounds-per-36 minutes to 8.7. His PER for his second year was only barely better than the worst PER of a top pick in their rookie season.
* * *
An odd trend I've never understood is the tendency to blame highly drafted players who bust for their own inability to reach potential.
Take, for example, notable NBA draft bust Kwame Brown. He stayed in the league for 11 years, he was a more-than-serviceable backup center for many of them. For most players, that's a pretty decent career. For Brown, it's not. His name will always carry the connotation of massive failure.
It seems unfair that Brown -- and for that matter, Darko Milicic, Michael Olowokandi, Andrea Bargnani, etc. -- are saddled for the horrendous decision another person made. These players didn't demand NBA teams waste their valuable picks. They didn't proclaim to the world that they were superstars, knowing full well they had a much more limited ceiling. Most of the time, they were told by the so-called experts of their own greatness. What were they supposed to do?
We can still save Anthony Bennett from this narrative. His career before and after his selection has been so unlike those of his fellow No. 1 overall picks, that I think the best thing for Bennett going forward would be if we all agree to pretend that he was never the No. 1 pick at all.
If and when Anthony Bennett signs with another NBA team, he shouldn't be treated as the former No. 1 pick. He should be viewed as a guy trying to make the dang roster.
Watching Bennett through this lens is the best thing for all parties involved. Bennett isn't good enough to make a team significantly better or earn a starting gig, as most ex-No. 1 picks would be able to do by their third year. To expect him to do so is setting up for disappointment.
But he's still a 6'8 guy with decent athleticism and a decent jumper who belongs in the NBA. Remember, Bennett's career isn't over. He should be going into his senior season at college right now, if it wasn't for his accelerated career arc and all the weight and expectations that came with it.
The decision to make Bennet the No. 1 pick was a bafflingly poor decision, an inexplicable choice by a GM who rightfully lost his job over it. But that GM's decision was one poor move in a career that could hypothetically have bright spots. We just have to ensure that bad decision doesn't dictate the way we think about Bennett forever.
* * *
SB Nation presents: NBA rookies imitate Kobe, LeBron and more stars