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Rebel at No. 1 'stunner' that just makes sense


The headline across ESPN.com at 6 p.m. Thursday: “Stunner at No. 1.”

The comments from a TV analyst: “Oh, my God. I think it’s a bizarre pick. It doesn’t make much sense to me.”

The overall consensus of those breaking down NBA Draft selections: No one saw it coming.

You know what? That’s why it makes perfect sense.

Why not Anthony Bennett?

For months, we were sold on the idea that this year’s crop of NBA prospects amassed the least amount of potential of any such group in years. That there would prove to be more busts than All-Stars, more journeymen than starters, more role players than difference makers.

That the closest thing this draft had to LeBron James was the fact Cleveland owned the top pick.

So when the Cavaliers used it to choose Bennett out of UNLV and most reacted as if murder charges had just been dropped against Aaron Hernandez, a certain thought came to mind: If the draft really was filled with so many questionable skill sets, why not pick the guy who owns the best one first?

Bennett has that going for him, and the Cavaliers obviously noticed. His game is like the rest of those selected, which means it has flaws and warts and things that could impede his progress if not addressed and fixed.

But beyond any weaknesses exists incredible potential. I was stunned he went No. 1 until, well, I wasn’t.

“I think he has more upside than anyone in the draft,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said. “I recruited him for a year and coached him for a season. Anthony is a special person who’s going to be a terrific NBA player. He’ll be the first to tell you there are things he needs to work on, but his intelligence and character set him apart. I wasn’t surprised at all he went No. 1.”

Rice was speaking from home, likely with his fingers and toes and legs crossed when making that last comment, having made the decision to remain in Las Vegas as his current players continued offseason workouts. But no matter his location, the impact of having a UNLV player be the first to shake commissioner David Stern’s hand was not lost on the man preparing to enter his third season as coach and searching for his first NCAA Tournament win.

This isn’t potentially big for UNLV’s recruiting efforts. It’s massive. It’s like getting free air time on the Jumbotron in Times Square, like cutting in line to buy a Powerball ticket and being handed the winning numbers.

It doesn’t guarantee Rice more McDonald’s All-Americans or high draft picks, but it greatly improves his chances for them.

It is what most all top recruits think about, dream about, eat, sleep and drink over: getting to the NBA. Being a first-round pick. Now, Rice has a mighty large carrot to dangle in front of them.

Let’s be honest: You can only play the Larry Johnson-as-a-No.-1-pick for so long before those you’re recruiting have no idea who Johnson is. I’m guessing UNLV had already passed into such territory.

“I am most excited for Anthony and his mother, Edith, who did such a wonderful job raising him,” Rice said. “But this is also great for our program, and it sends a message to any player who aspires to play in the NBA that, in just our second year, we have the No. 1 pick in the draft. It shows how bright the future is for us. Anthony put his faith in us and worked hard and realized his dream.

“That is certainly something we can utilize in recruiting.”

It can be a crazy thing, this draft. Few questioned Bennett’s talent when he departed college after one season, that he could stretch the floor with his shooting, and rebounds well, and has an NBA-ready body.

But then he underwent shoulder surgery and gained 18 pounds, and whispers began that he could slip to the No. 8-10 range of the first round.

Perhaps what everyone should have thought is this: Cleveland has Kyrie Irving at point guard and Tristan Thompson at power forward and Dion Waiters scoring from all spots on the floor, all very good, young, talented players. They also have Alonzo Gee at small forward.

Bennett equals a huge upgrade there and now has a coach (Mike Brown) who openly campaigned for Cleveland to select him.

Maybe this is how things should have gone all along in a draft in which no one seemed to know much of anything and never agreed on a consensus No. 1 pick.

The headline across ESPN.com at 9 p.m. Thursday: “Stunning Start”

Only because we had been conditioned to believe so for months.

Seriously, why not Anthony Bennett?

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.