NEW YORK — With his broad shoulders and big smile, Anthony Bennett flashes a striking resemblance to a basketball star who stole the show here 22 years ago.
The Las Vegas connection is a coincidence that makes comparisons between the physically impressive forwards unavoidable on the eve of the NBA Draft. The similarities in their styles of play are nearly a mirror image, yet one is much more of a mystery than the other.
Is Bennett the second coming of Larry Johnson? The answer is no sure thing, and talent evaluators have wrestled with the question for months.
“I’m versatile. I can play inside and out. I can shoot the 3. I can go down low and post up. I can basically do a little bit of everything,” Bennett said.
Johnson did all of those things, and a lot more. He led UNLV to a national championship as a junior and was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft after his senior year in 1991. There was no doubt about what he could do in the NBA, and he delivered as a two-time All-Star.
Bennett’s freshman season was a blur, a compilation of highlight dunks and 3-pointers for a Rebels team that won 25 games but no championships or NCAA Tournament games. Still, there was no doubt he made the right call to leave college after one year.
“It’s my dream to play in the NBA,” said Bennett, who some project as a future All-Star and others speculate could turn into an overweight bust. The truth might be somewhere in the middle.
Bennett appears similar to the other elite players in this draft, set for 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s a high-risk event with a mysterious feel, the teams at the top gambling on players full of potential and surrounded by question marks.
“Are there franchise type players at the top of the draft? I think teams at the top are frustrated,” said Chad Ford, draft analyst for ESPN.com. “They want a guy who has a chance at being a 10-year All-Star or perhaps a Hall of Famer someday. That’s what you want out of the No. 1 pick, and that player doesn’t exist in this draft yet.
“There will be good players in this draft, but I doubt we’ll see a lot of All-Stars or franchise changers. To me, that makes it more exciting to cover. It’s a lot harder to project this draft. Trying to figure out who those guys are and who are the pretenders, it’s a lot more challenging this year.”
Ford added that Bennett “could be the best player in this draft.”
Cleveland owns the No. 1 pick, followed by Orlando, Washington, Charlotte and Phoenix. The Cavaliers, rumored to be interested in Bennett in recent weeks, now seem intent to pick a center, either Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel or 7-foot-1-inch Alex Len from Maryland.
The Magic are likely to take Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, and the Wizards are reportedly debating between Bennett and Georgetown forward Otto Porter Jr. If he’s still on the board, Bennett could go No. 4 to Charlotte, which drafted Johnson in the top spot more than two decades ago.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Does he remind you in a way of Larry Johnson?’ Yes, in a way, he does. Not just because he’s from UNLV. Because he has that versatility as a big man,” Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, told the Orlando Sentinel.
“He’s one of the most versatile players around. He’s a guy that can play in the post. He can play a little bit on the wing. He can rebound. He can block shots. He can pass the ball, as well. He can be one of the better players in a few years that comes out of this draft because of that.”
Bennett, who grew up in Canada and attended Findlay Prep, was the first McDonald’s All-American to play for UNLV straight out of high school since 1983. He averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while starting 32 of 35 games. A left shoulder injury that sidelined him briefly in late February required rotator cuff surgery May 9.
Unable to participate in predraft workouts, Bennett has interviewed with each of the five teams atop the draft board. His rehabilitation is ahead of schedule, according to Mike George, Bennett’s agent for Excel Sports Management, and any concerns about Bennett having asthma were calmed after he was checked out by NBA team physicians.
“His shoulder is healing a lot faster than they thought it would,” said George, who predicted Bennett will be “100 percent” by August. “He has asthma. But I don’t think it’s going to affect him down the road. No one is really worried about that.
“He’s just happy to be in the league and ready to play. He’s totally loving it. His mind is in the right place.”
Bennett’s weight, around 240 pounds for most of the season, has ballooned to 260 because of inactivity, and his stock might suffer some because of that. However, a source indicated Bennett will drop no further than the No. 8 spot to Detroit. George said it’s a guessing game where his client will land.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” George said. “Everybody has seen what he can do already and they know what his talent level is. I think it all just comes down to fit and need.”
It’s uncertain whether Bennett, who has been listed as 6-8 but is closer to 6-7, fits better as a power forward or small forward. He made 37.5 percent of his 3-point attempts at UNLV, but on the defensive end he figures to struggle at the 4-spot.
“Bennett drips with offensive potential,” Andy Glockner of SI.com said. “For a player his size, he has terrific perimeter skills. He projects best as an undersized 4 but probably will end up swinging between that and the 3. While he should be able to cause issues when his team has the ball, he could, at this stage, end up having issues on the defensive end against stronger, more experienced pro power forwards.
“Bennett is the prospect GMs dream about, with numerous evaluators comparing him to a young Larry Johnson. Bennett’s future includes anything from regular All-Star appearances to a one-dimensional scorer off the bench.”
Dave Rice, who played with Johnson and coached Bennett last season, said “having a high first-round pick is significant” for the program. Bennett is about to become the first UNLV player drafted since 2003, when point guard Marcus Banks was the 13th overall pick.
The Rebels have produced four top-10 picks — including Stacey Augmon (ninth, 1991), J.R. Rider (fifth, 1993) and Shawn Marion (ninth, 1999) — since Johnson went No. 1 overall.
Bennett, born in March 1993, has watched Johnson’s highlights on YouTube.
“The comparisons to L.J. are fair as long as people remember L.J. was drafted after four years of college and A.B. has played only one,” Rice said. “But there are definitely similarities in terms of skill level, athleticism and being tremendous teammates. Anthony is a wonderful representative of our program.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.