By Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
INDEPENDENCE: When Anthony Bennett’s first free-throw attempt was woefully short Tuesday, barely catching the front of the rim, C.J. Miles walked into the lane and calmly told Bennett to relax.
It was a bit of a flashback for Miles, who giggled when Bennett’s first NBA shot was a 3-pointer that clanged off the backboard after missing the rim entirely. Miles’ first shot in the NBA hit the logo in the lower left corner of the backboard and his second was an air ball, prompting then-teammate Deron Williams to get in his face just as he did Bennett on Tuesday.
And just like Bennett and Miles, the first shot of Kyrie Irving’s career was an air ball, too.
“Get ’em up. It’s preseason. It’s a time to get out the kinks,” Irving said. “He jacked his first air ball up and got it out of the way.”
The air ball wasn’t Bennett’s biggest problem. As the Cavaliers prepare to play at the Orlando Magic tonight in a matchup of Bennett and Victor Oladipo, the top two picks in June’s NBA Draft, Bennett has to be more concerned with convincing coach Mike Brown that he can be trusted — and that won’t be easy.
Historically, Brown has begrudged giving rookies a lot of playing time. In his first two years in the league, J.J. Hickson’s mental lapses drove Brown crazy. And before that, Shannon Brown appeared in just 23 games as a rookie — although Daniel Gibson eventually earned Brown’s trust enough to play big minutes on the Cavs’ march to the NBA Finals.
But Brown has made it clear this preseason he doesn’t really trust rookies. Bennett annoyed him in Tuesday’s preseason opener by failing to box out, failing to get back in transition and, yes, the air ball annoyed Brown, too. He made it clear to Bennett that such mistakes during the regular season will result in a short stint on the court.
Asked Thursday if it would pain him to rely on a rookie for big minutes, Brown said, “It probably would, yes. But it’s just the preseason, so it doesn’t matter. If it was the regular season, probably after the first air ball he shot from 3, and the first time he didn’t get back on defense in transition, or the first time he didn’t box out, he would’ve been coming out of the game. He wouldn’t have played big minutes. But it’s the preseason, so it’s a great time for him to learn and grow and get better.”
Miles’ quick message at the free-throw line was to breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth and to relax, because the basket is still the same size and it’s still 10 feet off the floor.
“But the 3-point line is farther, which he found out,” Miles said, laughing. “I told him, Your first NBA game, the first possession that you get down the floor, and you shoot a 3? When nobody was in front of you? Dude, make it a little easier on yourself.’ ”
Bennett stayed after practice Thursday to work on his footwork and his shot. He ran through a drill with assistant coach Phil Handy to get his feet set quicker, then he wanted to get extra shots up because he was unhappy with his 2-of-12 shooting performance. But he insists he wasn’t nervous or pressing.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Bennett said. “First game back since March or April. I’m just trying to get back into the groove.”
Miles told him the best way to do that was attack the basket. He told him the Bucks’ Ersan Ilyasova couldn’t guard him if Bennett went right at him. Part of the reason the Cavs liked Bennett so much in the draft was his broad shoulders and incredible natural strength — Brown said this week a small number of players should be able to move Bennett when he sets a screen.
In time, Bennett should be a tremendous force on the block and even a stretch 4 with his ability to shoot 3-pointers. But he’ll have to improve defensively and execute the little things better before Brown trusts him in key situations. Right now, Brown is in no hurry to do so.
“He’s realizing he can go even harder than what he’s going,” Brown said. “The good part about it is we have guys and we don’t have to rely on him as most teams would a No. 1 pick. So we can bring him along slowly. We’ll let him move or go as quickly as he does and not put any pressure on him to get there sooner than later. That’s the luxury being around the group of guys we have here. They can carry him and help him until he gets to a point where he’s ready.”
Tyler Zeller (hip), Alonzo Gee (hamstring) and Andrew Bynum (knees) did not make the trip to Orlando for tonight’s game. All three remained in Cleveland for more treatment on their injuries.
The injuries to Zeller and Gee aren’t expected serious, and both could play if these games mattered. Bynum still hasn’t been cleared for five-on-five work.
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.