Bennett bolts Rebels, heads for NBA Draft

It was a business decision Anthony Bennett was wise to make. But while announcing he is leaving UNLV for the NBA, he displayed how much it all meant on a personal level.

The 6-foot-8-inch freshman wiped away tears during a news conference Monday afternoon at the Mendenhall Center.

“As you can see, I’m really emotional about this,” Bennett said. “It’s a real hard decision. The whole week has been really crazy. It’s been my dream to play for a team in the NBA. Everything hit me now. It’s the real world.

“I had a great experience here. I just really don’t want to leave this behind. I feel like I have a real special bond with my teammates. The coaches made me a better man and a better player on the court.”

Surrounded by several local media, TV cameras, his coaches and a few teammates, Bennett made an announcement to enter the NBA Draft that caught no one by surprise. But his show of emotion was spontaneous, and it was not an Academy Award performance.

“That’s genuine. He’s a really good person,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said. “He’s a compassionate person.”

Bennett is projected to be a top-five pick in the draft June 27 at Madison Square Garden in New York. When his name is called, he’ll become the first UNLV player drafted since 2003, when point guard Marcus Banks was picked 13th overall.

The Rebels have produced four top-10 picks — including Stacey Augmon (ninth, 1991), J.R. Rider (fifth, 1993) and Shawn Marion (ninth, 1999) — since Larry Johnson was drafted No. 1 overall in 1991.

“We sat down and talked a number of times. It was very obvious it was going to be the right thing for Anthony to do,” said Rice, calling it an occasion to “celebrate” Bennett and the “tremendous impact” he made during his one season in the program.

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 Freddie Banks in 1983. But when he signed last summer, Bennett said, he never expected to be a one-and-done college player.

“Not at all,” he said. “I thought I would be the average player, being a freshman and all.”

Bennett averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while starting 32 of 35 games for the Rebels, who finished the season 25-10. He was voted first-team All-Mountain West Conference and was honored by various organizations as one of the top players in the nation.

Sophomore forward Khem Birch, who also is from Canada, said he realized for certain in February that Bennett was ready for the NBA. Others could see this day coming in December.

“I know it’s best for him to leave,” Birch said. “I do have mixed emotions. He’s a friend and a great player.”

Bennett, who turned 20 on March 14, said he wants to “support the family,” and spoke with his mom, Edith, about the move.

“It’s not the easiest decision to make,” he said. “But I’m pretty happy about it. As a young man, I’m ready to work hard and to learn.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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