INDEPENDENCE: The first time Anthony Bennett picked up a basketball, he was a young boy living in one of Toronto’s toughest neighborhoods. He wasn’t serious about the game, but the choices for young boys living within the Jane and Finch district are typically limited to drugs, guns, gangs and basketball.
He got away from the game when his mother moved them to the suburb of Brampton, so when he began to grow a few years later, friends and family encouraged him to give the game another try.
“I said, ‘All right, I’ll give it a shot,’ ” Bennett said Thursday. “Look where it got me now.”
Basketball lifted Bennett out of Toronto’s gang-infested streets, carried him to Las Vegas and eventually elevated him to the surprising first pick in the NBA Draft.
No one expected him to go first overall — he looked just as astonished as anyone when Commissioner David Stern called his name first. But in a flawed draft, the Cavs closed their eyes and bet on an undersized power forward who has the potential to dazzle.
Bennett averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds during a freshman season at UNLV that ended with him earning Freshman of the Year honors, but he is only 6-foot-7. By comparison, Carrick Felix, the shooting guard the Cavaliers drafted in the second round, is 6-6.
Bennett is aided by a wingspan of more than 7 feet and he is blessed with an explosive offensive game that includes dunks, 3-point range and all points in between. Yet the most glaring knock on Bennett, aside from his height, is his poor defense. With new coach Mike Brown back in town, that just isn’t acceptable.
“These guys will figure out how to get on the floor,” Brown said. “If they can’t figure out they’ll have to play defense, they’ll be doing what they’re doing now.”
Both Bennett and Felix were sitting.
Felix isn’t the concern. He loves to play defense and will go nose-to-nose with anyone on the floor, comparing himself to the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler. Bennett is the concern.
General Manager Chris Grant believes Bennett is a power forward, but others in the organization believe he can play small forward. Brown prefers to take the wait-and-see approach, but believes Bennett and Tristan Thompson can play together, even though neither player is taller than 6-9.
“If he does play some 3, if I felt confident in him playing some of that, then he could be a bigger guy you may be able to post up at that spot,” Brown said. “There’s versatility there, but it’s one of those things we’ll have to wait and see how comfortable he is on the floor when it comes to playing multiple positions.”
Bennett was raised in a single-parent home by a strong mother, Edith, who worked two full-time jobs to afford pulling her family out of the projects. Bennett moved to Brampton, Ontario — the same town where Thompson lived — when he was 10.
Edith is a nurse who worked 16-hour days at a rehab facility and a mental hospital in Toronto with only a 30-minute break in between. She still holds both jobs, but only works part time at the mental facility.
Even though her son will make in excess of $4 million next season, she still plans to keep working. She grew up believing anything is possible, then passed that belief onto her son. Then he went out and proved it.
“If you set a goal and want to achieve something in your life, nothing can stop you,” Edith said. “You can grow up in the worst part of the community, that doesn’t stop you. It depends on the person.”
The Cavs are counting on Bennett, the person, to shine.
Bernie Bickerstaff will be part of Brown’s coaching staff, which was announced in full Thursday by Grant. Bickerstaff will join Jim Boylan, Igor Kokoskov, Jamahl Mosley, Vitaly Potapenko, Phil Handy and Bret Brielmaier on a staff that blends youth and experience.
Bickerstaff has been around the NBA for the past 30 years. He was a head coach four different times and most recently served on Brown’s staff with the Los Angeles Lakers. He replaced Brown after he was fired five games into last season.
Alex Jensen, who was the Development League’s Coach of the Year last season with the Canton Charge, has left the organization for a job with the Utah Jazz.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.