INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Anthony Bennett wasn’t really all that interested in playing basketball. Yeah, it was cool dunking on guys, and a great way to make new friends after moving from Toronto to the city’s suburbs.
Then, he decided to get serious about six or seven years ago.
His future was calling.
“I just started growing,” Bennett said, flashing a smile while talking about his unique path to the NBA. “And everyone said, ‘You should probably play basketball.’ So I said, ‘All right. I’ll give it a shot.’ Look where it got me now.”
Bennett was formally introduced Friday by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who shocked the draft by selecting the UNLV power forward with the No. 1 overall pick on Thursday night.
Although he wasn’t regarded by many draft experts as the best player available, Bennett was always at the top of Cleveland’s board. They scouted the 6-foot-7, 240-pounder extensively all season, fell in love with his game and after getting rave reviews about his character, chose him over Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, Kansas guard Ben McLemore, Georgetown forward Otto Porter Jr. in a flawed draft.
“As we did our evaluations throughout the entire year, we just kept coming back to his ability and his talent and how it fit with our guys,” Cavs general manager Chris Grant said. “A lot of times, like last year, it’s just clear-cut. But for us, through the year, we always had him very high in our rankings and as we went back and reviewed the film and went on campus and visited everybody, we came away saying he’s a great kid. He’s willing to work and do the right things and he’s got a bunch of talent.”
From almost the moment they won the lottery until they had to call the league with their pick, the Cavs listened to multiple trade offers before taking Bennett, who averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds in his one season with the Runnin’ Rebels.
Bennett didn’t find basketball as much as the sport discovered him.
After his family moved from the rough Jane and Finch area of inner Toronto to Brampton, Ontario, Bennett enjoyed playing hoops, but it wasn’t his passion.
“I was just playing around and just wasting time,” he said.
His mother, Edith, was encouraged to get him on an organized team, but as she watched her boy clumsily run up and down the floor, she never dreamed it would one day become his profession.
“At first, people were saying, ‘Oh, he can’t play’,” she said. “But a few of the coaches stuck with him and gave him a chance. See what a chance will get you?”
Bennett’s arrival didn’t come without some risks for the Cavs. He recently underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and has reportedly struggled with his weight while recovering.
Grant, though, sees him as the next piece — along with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters — to help turn around a franchise that has gone 64-166 in the three seasons since LeBron James left.
“A lot of guys in this draft were out for medical reasons, but at the end of the day we just felt like this was the right guy to add with all the talent he has,” Grant said. “You put him in a pick and roll with Dion or Kyrie, he’s going to be pretty difficult to guard because he can shoot the ball and is athletic and can handle the ball and get to the rim.”
There’s a strong possibility Bennett won’t even start as a rookie next season. He could wind up as a backup to fellow Canadian Tristan Thompson, who was taken by the Cavs in the first round in 2011. Like Bennett, Thompson grew up in Brampton.
“I feel like me and Tristan will become best friends,” Bennett said. “He’s going to be my go-to guy just because he’s from Canada. I’m sure there are lot more guys on that team I can go to, but just because even if I’m here in Cleveland or back home in Brampton, I can talk to him anywhere I am.”
Some questioned why the Cavs would take another power forward with Thompson on the roster and other pressing needs like a shooter or small forward. Cavs coach Mike Brown isn’t concerned about having two potential starting power forwards and is confident playing time will begin to get sorted out in training camp.
“They have to go out and compete,” Brown said. “They may be buddies, but once they cross that line, I think they’ll get after each other. They’ll want to make themselves better, as well as the team. It’s great to have depth in all areas. Anthony is definitely a guy that has added that to us. He is versatile. He’s different than the bigs we have.”
As his skills developed and his game blossomed, Bennett kept a list of players he dunked over. A dunking diary, so to speak.
“I thought it was pretty fun to do,” he said with laugh.