This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
In February, Anthony Bennett, the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, found out he was going to be waived by the Toronto Raptors. The team, on its way to winning its third consecutive Atlantic Division title, had decided to pick up veteran forward Jason Thompson for the postseason run. The decision effectively ended Bennett's season, as well as the potential feel-good story of turning his career around with his hometown team. The Raptors were Bennett's third team in three years—the latest chapter in his stunning fall from top pick to afterthought.
Immediately after hearing the news, Bennett flew to Las Vegas to work out with Impact Basketball and spent six weeks with trainer Drew Hanlen, going through three-hour daily workouts. The workouts started with a focus to help Bennett rediscover his joy for the game. Hanlen would put five minutes on the clock, and multiple defenders would take turns defending Bennett one-on-one while he tried to score as many baskets as he could.
"I was talking shit to him, putting everything as a challenge," Hanlen said. "We kept jawing at him until he got his confidence." By the end of the summer, Hanlen saw a noticeable change in Bennett's demeanour.
Dave Rice, currently an assistant coach at the University of Nevada who was the head coach at UNLV from 2011-16, remembers Bennett as one of the most popular teammates in the locker room. There was an infectious energy about Bennett, whom Rice noticed while he was scouting at Findlay Prep, an elite-level Nevada high school travel team that has produced NBAers like Bennett, Avery Bradley and Tristan Thompson. One of the things that stood out to Rice during Bennett's lone year at UNLV was the 6'8" forward's joy for the game.
"I think he was a little unlucky he just never got the same opportunity and he probably lost his confidence a little bit," Rice said. "He's a pleaser. He's such a good person—he wants to do well for his coach, for his teammates and for the fans.
"He didn't get off to a great start and it probably hurt his confidence a little bit. There's always inherent pressure when you're the No. 1 pick in the draft."
This summer, Bennett signed a two-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets. He's earning the veteran's minimum this season, and the team has an option for the second year. "He got caught up in circumstances," Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said. "I think him and us, we're both looking at it like this is a fresh opportunity."
The Nets are a great fit for Bennett to kickstart his NBA career. Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Those circumstances included a rookie season with the rebuilding Cavaliers, who decided to move in a different direction after year one, shipping Bennett along with Wiggins to Minnesota in a blockbuster trade for Kevin Love after LeBron James decided to come home. In Minnesota and Toronto, Bennett never managed to break into the regular rotation. He spent most of his time in Toronto at the end of the team's bench or playing just down the road for the Raptors' D-League affiliate in Mississauga.
When I spoke to Bennett at the start of training camp in Brooklyn, he admitted that basketball stopped being fun once he got to the NBA. The professional aspect was overwhelming to him. "It was just straight business," Bennett said. He stopped short of calling the entire situation in Cleveland dysfunctional, only to say that it wasn't what he thought it would be. Internally, the frustration built up. Bennett, who describes himself as quiet and shy, would talk to his mom and friends back home, but otherwise had very few people on his teams that he'd lean on for advice.
That changed last season when he was back home in Toronto. He was reunited with fellow Canadian and close friend Cory Joseph, and more importantly, found a mentor in veteran Luis Scola, who had played against Bennett in international competition, and saw the potential in the raw forward. His advice to Bennett: once you have fun, the world is yours. The two are now teammates in Brooklyn. Their lockers are next to each other.
"Sometimes being young is hard," Scola said.
For Bennett, going back to the basics and rediscovering the joy for the game is just a first step to rebuilding his value in the NBA. When he has managed to get on the court, there's a case to be made, by most metrics, that Bennett is the worst No. 1 overall pick in league history. So he spent the summer working on being more consistent with his jumper, his ability to take defenders off the dribble, and his low-post scoring. Bennett has also honed in on his diet, substituting apple juice for water, and eliminating the late-night fruit snacks he used to enjoy.
The 23-year-old, who is eager to turn his career around with the rebuilding Nets, views himself as a stretch four, which is what Rice envisioned, too, when Bennett first arrived at UNLV.
Reunited and it feels so good. Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
"I always thought his ability to shoot the ball from long range was a difference maker for him. He was a tough matchup in college because of his ability to stretch the floor," Rice said. Hanlen even draws a comparison to Draymond Green. "There's not much athletically different between the two," Hanlen said.
In a preseason game earlier this month against the Boston Celtics, Bennett checks into the game in the first half and has his layup attempt blocked on his first offensive possession. The next trip down the court, he misses a 3-pointer from the top of the key. He shoots 1-for-9 on the evening, with a fastbreak dunk in the third quarter his only highlight. With the Nets, though, one preseason game will not determine Bennett's fate. On a team undergoing a transition with plenty of roster spots up for grabs, he will get every chance to play himself into the Nets' rotation this season.
For Bennett, on his fourth team in four seasons, it's a long way from having the expectations of a No. 1 pick who can change the fortunes of an entire franchise. The goals are simple this year. "Most people just want to see points, rebounds and what's in the box score—I think if he does that the on court will take care of that," Hanlen said. "I want him to have unwavering confidence and unbreakable faith, trust the work he's put in and let the results come because of all that."
Bennett agrees. "Just go out and have fun," he said. "Once I have fun, everything can happen, the sky's the limit. I can have a decent game and bad game, [but] as long as I'm having fun that's all that matters."