by Frank McLean
The most interesting of the Toronto Raptors off season player additions happened the night before training camp started with media day on September 28th. That’s when they signed Canadian power forward Anthony Bennett to a one year minimum contract of $947,000. Bennett is an interesting story.
Two years ago the Cleveland Cavaliers made the Toronto native the first pick overall in the NBA draft, making him the first Canadian to go first overall. Then, after a year in Cleveland, he was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
You could see Cleveland’s logic in trading Bennett. He battled injuries in his rookie season with the Cavaliers. Add LeBron James making his way back to North East Ohio and Bennett was seen as the perfect trade chip as James needed some veteran players to fit his skill set. So the Cavaliers included Bennett in a trade to get Kevin Love, a seasoned player to gel with James. A move many thought had James’ fingerprints all over it.
But after a year in Minnesota and more injury problems, the Timberwolves were happy to place him on waivers. After no team claimed him, the Timberwolves bought out the remainder of his contract for 3.6 million dollars.
In his two years in the NBA Bennett has only played in 109 games, averaging 14.3 minutes, 4.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Not great numbers for a first pick overall, but when you have been hit with the injury bug in sports that fragile label sticks to you and never seems to go away. ESPN television and radio mouths have had a field day debating his abilities as a pro and, for that matter, the ability to stay healthy.
The Mike and Mike in the morning show were insinuating that Bennett may be the worst first pick overall in the history of the NBA draft. Boy you’d think that they were talking about a 32-year broken down old 10 year pro and not a 22-year old going into his third season. Cue your Toronto Raptors taking a chance on Bennett.
They obviously see something in Bennett that other teams may not. Plus being a Canadian and a member of the National Team is always a good marketing move. But can he play and stay healthy?
As general manager Masai Ujiri said on media day,
“For us to get a Canadian 22-year old power forward that is athletic and can play at the minimum? We’ll take it. He’ll have a chance. We feel like we’re a growing team and we can absorb a guy like that.”
Bennett meanwhile is ecstatic to be able to play at home in Toronto. At 22-years of age Bennett is of the Vince Carter/ Tracy McGrady generation. Carter and McGrady made those kids growing up during their time as a Toronto Raptor, not only basketball fans, but players as well.
“I feel like it was the perfect situation for me” Bennett said a week ago. “Coming home, playing in front of family, friends, fans it’s just being comfortable”.
Just because he is Canadian and a Toronto native doesn’t mean a job will be handed to him. Coach Dwane Casey made that point too.
“He should feel comfortable,” Casey said. “But again all the time and everything else, he’s going to have to come in and earn it.”
So it’s up to Bennett to work his way up the Raptors roster.
A wonky shoulder kept Bennett out of the line up in the Raptors first pre-season game, but his play with the National Team during the Pan-Am Games proved he is worthy of a second chance in the NBA.
National Team coach Jay Triano and GM Steve Nash love him as a player and a person. Bennett is also happy to get to play with one of his national team teammates and another Toronto native Cory Joseph.
“I’m very excited to have the two of us here, representing our city and our country,” Bennett said. “And I’m just really excited. I can’t even put it into words.”
This is a win-win situation for the Raptors. If it works out it’s great for team. If not it only cost them the minimum salary and didn’t put a monkey wrench into their salary cap.
Many players in sports have used a change of scenery to jump start their careers. Bennett is looking for that in coming home to Toronto. Hopefully Bennett can take this opportunity to stay healthy and prove to the basketball world that he is not the worst first overall pick in the NBA draft history.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.