Bust label will be hard for ex-Rebel Bennett to shake

I always believed it a misrepresented term in sports based on the situation: bust.

Anthony Bennett has played two years in the NBA, and with the $3.65 million buyout of his contract from Minnesota last week, the former UNLV standout has already pocketed more than $13 million.

If that’s the definition of a bust, sign me up.

But most don’t observe things in such a manner, because with the reality of being one of your sport’s top draft picks comes the perception that anything less than a long and successful career of gaudy statistics and championships should be evaluated as a failure. It becomes an even harsher evaluation when you’re selected No. 1 overall.

Hence, how Bennett is viewed today.

Not merely as a bust, but as an all-time one.

Oh, yeah. He’s 22.

Labels can be brutal on the young.

Bennett has for some time now found himself mentioned in the same sentences as the likes of Michael Olowokandi and Darko Milicic, other high selections whose careers didn’t come close to matching the draft position at which they were chosen.

In fact, Bennett’s forgettable start in the NBA has come at a historic rate, given even the most disappointing high draft picks over the past decade didn’t reach a second professional team nearly as fast.

Bennett recently signed a one-year deal with Toronto for the league minimum of $950,000. It’s his third team in three seasons.

“We’re proud of the fact he’s an NBA player and such a great representative of UNLV,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said last week. “We have a lot of optimism for him moving forward.

“I think he should approach things the same way he did when he came into UNLV. He came in as a heralded guy but with a chip on his shoulder. He was a team guy, but he had something to prove, and he played that way. He played probably the best basketball he ever played the year he was with us at UNLV. I think the best part of his basketball career is still ahead of him.”

The last part is debatable based strictly on how much Bennett has struggled since the Cavaliers chose him No. 1 in 2013. His professional averages of 4.7 points and 3.4 rebounds tell the story of a player who has made little impact. He was injured during the draft process, showed up in Cleveland out of shape, remained that way most of his rookie season and never made any sort of impact in Minnesota, which tried trading him for months but discovered zero interest.

Think about it: Two years ago, the 6-foot-8-inch forward sat atop the NBA Draft. Now, before the Raptors chose to bring Bennett home to Canada hoping familiar surroundings might kick-start his career, he was bypassed on waivers by 29 teams.

Portland and Philadelphia even had available cap space but chose to pass.

And the 76ers seem to take anyone with a pulse.

“Once I think about proving people (wrong), that’s when the game becomes complicated,” Bennett told reporters in Toronto this week. “I’ve just got to keep it as simple as I can.”

He is likely never going to completely shake the bust image, not unless his career suddenly takes some unexpected turn for the better that neither those in Cleveland nor Minnesota believed was possible. But before judging him in such a way, consider first the weak collection of talent from which he was plucked.

The 2013 draft was a crapshoot of little potential and even less sizzle, and at no time did anyone believe there existed a player capable of carrying a franchise on his back. There is still every chance the draft a decade from now will be considered historically bad and among the all-time worst.

In most years, meaning those which at least a few can’t-miss All-Stars exist within the pool, Bennett wouldn’t have come close to being the No. 1 pick.

In most years, much better players than Victor Oladipo and Otto Porter and Cody Zeller and Alex Len would have been among those considered for the top spot.

Olowokandi, picked No. 1 in 1998, was selected before Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce.

That’s a bust.

Milicic, taken No. 2 in 2003, was selected before Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Also a bust.

Bennett was merely the first of many players who to this point have proven average at best.

Oladipo. Rudy Gobert. Trey Burke. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nerlens Noel. Michael Carter-Williams.

Those have been the best of the class thus far.

Nothing spectacular.

“Anthony played extremely well for Team Canada this past summer,” Rice said. “It was certainly a tough situation for him with the buyout, but sometimes that sort of situation gives you an opportunity. He’s in shape and has a lot of confidence. I think he’s going to play extremely well this year.”

He needs to, because not three years removed from being the No. 1 overall pick, Bennett just had a team pay him $3.65 million not to play for it this season rather than $5.8 million to do so. Even at 22, he is at a crossroads that will demand he show something now or risk being out of the league for good.

Bust is a relative term in these matters, and if you choose to label Anthony Bennett one, his disappointing and downward spiral of a short career certainly won’t protest.

But it’s not as if his draft class has proven to be a smorgasbord of outstanding NBA talent. Bennett just heard his name called before the rest.

It can be a blessing and, as he has learned, a curse.

Although still a profitable one.

Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney

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