In some stunning news, European basketball reporter has this to tweet on Thursday night:
OFFICIAL: Fenerbahce pens Anthony Bennett. Sources, deal in $400,000 range with team rights to extend till 2018.
— David Pick (@IAmDPick) January 13, 2017
Bennett, the No. 1 draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2013 NBA Draft who was famously drafted over Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, C.J. McCollum, and Rudy Gobert, has not quite had the professional career he probably envisioned when he left after one year at UNLV. He has struggled through injuries and being effective on the court, which has resulted in him playing on four NBA teams (Cavs, Timberwolves, Raptors, and most recently nets) in his short four-year career. After getting released by the Nets and with little interest from NBA teams, the Canadian hybrid-forward opted for a roster spot in Europe (well…Turkey to be specific) instead of signing with a D-League team.
The decision is a peculiar one. Bennett has struggled to find a position on the court in the NBA. At 6’8, he isn’t exactly tall enough to play the power forward or center position full time, but on the flip side, he doesn’t exactly have the three point shooting prowess or athleticism to play the small forward either. In today’s NBA, where shooting and height is not just a premium, but almost a necessity when building a roster, Bennett’s tweener skill set simply didn’t mesh, and it was not surprising that the former top pick was primarily regulated to the bench or on assignment in the D-League at various points with various teams throughout his NBA career.
However, the idea of playing in Europe should be enticing for Bennett. Considering quality big men tend to be rarer in European basketball than the NBA, it is possible to see Bennett become more valuable and hence, have a chance to be more productive. After all, Ekpe Udoh, a former lottery pick of the Golden State Warriors who had a lackluster NBA career, has become not only an All-Euroleague player, but a borderline Euroleague MVP candidate this season as well. Bennett probably sees this, and at 23-years-old, probably hopes for an opportunity for redemption like Udoh.
So, it makes sense on paper that Bennett signed with Fenerbahce. He wants a career bounce-back like Udoh, why not sign with Udoh’s club?
The question, however, is this: will Bennett fit on this Fenerbahce team?
Fenerbahce going into this season was a favorite to make a third-straight appearance in the Euroleague Final Four. They basically returned everyone from last year’s runner-up team, and they also added the athletic James Nunnally, who played with Italian club Avellino last season. Along with CSKA Moscow (who also returned a ton of talent) and Real Madrid (who returned their core of talent beyond Sergio Rodriguez, and also added All-Euroleague center Anthony Randolph), Fenerbahce looked like a Euroleague championship favorite, especially considering the Final Four was going to be on their home turf in Istanbul.
However, this season has not gone as expected. Bogdan Bogdanovic has missed multiple games due to injury. They have not gotten as much consistency from their roster beyond Udoh and breakout star Kostas Sloukas (who has emerged as their go-to perimeter scorer in Bogdanovich’s absence). And their defense, a staple of legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic (who has won Euroleague titles with Partizan and Panathinaikos), has been wildly inconsistent, as they do not seem to have the kind of cohesion and communication that made their defense so stout the past two seasons. And all these issues are amplified when one takes a look at their record: 10-7, 5th in the standings, with a negative-9 point differential.
Hence, Fenerbahce needs a spark for this second-half, especially after their most recent 75-73 loss to Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade (Red Star swept the season series from Fenerbahce, which included a double digit win over the “Yellow Canaries” in Istanbul; I’m sure this infuriated Serbian national and former Partizan coach Obradovic to no end). And Bennett could provide a spark because Fenerbahce’s biggest weaknesses this year has been physicality and depth in the post.
Now, one might think Fenerbahce should be set in the paint. They have two All-Euroleague frontcourt players in Udoh and Jan Vesely (another former NBA lottery pick bust), former Atlanta Hawk Pero Antic, and Serbian Nikola Kalinic, who has been productive this season while averaging over 24 MPG and 7.4 ppg. However, despite their depth on paper, Fenerbahce’s frontcourt hasn’t really delivered beyond Udoh. Vesely hasn’t been the dominant force that he once was in Fenerbahce’s past couple of seasons (this is probably due to Udoh, who has emerged as Fenerbahce’s go-to post player after Vesely went down with injury in the second half of last season). Antic has gradually been phased out of the lineup, as he is averaging only 14 mpg, and earned a DNP in their last contest again Red Star. And while Kalinic is a talented scorer and athletic post, he can get into foul trouble, and he doesn’t necessarily have the bulk to bully himself against more physical posts in the Euroleague.
Fenerbahce is hoping that Bennett will solve those physicality issues in the post. In college, Bennett mostly found success around the rim, on the glass and around the rim. Yes, he was undersized, but he looked more comfortable in the block as a four in college, which he never really got a chance to do due to the length he gave up to opposing frontcourt players in the NBA. Fenerbahce did not sign Bennett because they need shooting. They didn’t sign him because they needed athleticism. They need him because they need somebody to bang on the glass and on defense, and show some scoring touch around the basket beyond Udoh. Fenerbahce has struggled most against teams that play physical: they were swept by Red Star, and have lost to Baskonia, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, who all have good, aggressive post players. They are hoping Bennett will help equalize their chances against those teams, especially since those are the kinds of teams whom they will be fighting against down the stretch for a Final Four spot.
Bennett won’t be given an easy opportunity. He most likely will be competing with Antic for the remaining minutes in the block behind Udoh, Vesely, and Kalinic. Antic most likely will lose out because he really doesn’t offer the skill set they need: he’s not athletic, he’s not very good defensively, he plays more on the perimeter, and his rebounding is paltry at best (2.6 per game this year). Antic made his name in the NBA as a stretch-4 who could shoot well beyond the arc, and he is doing okay in that category by shooting 36.6 percent per game. But with Bogdanovic back in the lineup, and Udoh the primary offensive frontcourt player, shots are few in number, and Antic isn’t really high enough in priority to merit more. They don’t need more scoring from the outside, and unfortunately, that’s all really Antic gives this Fenerbahce team.
And if you look at the numbers, it is obvious that Bennett gives Fenerbahce the skill set that they are sorely missing with Antic on the floor. Bennett was shooting 56.8 percent on two-point field goals with Brooklyn this year. His per 36 numbers are solid: 15.7 pp36m, 10.6 rp36m, and only 1.6 turnovers per 36 minutes. And while playing more physical in the paint in comparison to his early years (where he was forced to play more small-forward with the Cavs), he has been able to be physical without fouling, as evidenced by the 2.5 fouls per 36 minutes. Yes, those are just projections, and per 36 minute statististics need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, he has showed glimpses of breaking out as of late. He may never be a No.1 status player, but he certainly has the opportunity to still be a really good basketball player, especially when you watch some of the highlights from him below:
Fenerbahce is not expecting a NBA All-Star or future Hall-of-Famer, as some Cavs find did when they drafted him No.1 overall (okay…nobody was thinking that even on draft night, but still he was drafted first). Rather, they are hoping that with more minutes and more playing time, Bennett will not only become closer to the player he was at UNLV, which would help rebound his career, but he will also solidify their playoff and thus, Final Four chances.
This should work, right? Bennett has something to prove. He has a skill set that could be more effective against less-elite frontcourt players. He is going to a good team with a widely-respected and successful coach. He should fit, right?
It should…but we have seen American flopping in the Euroleague before.
While you could point to the Udoh success story, you could also look on the flip side with Galatasaray, as Americans like Russ Smith and Austin Daye haven’t had the impact basketball fans thought they would enjoy in the Euroleague this season. It’s actually quite common, and any Euroleague expert who know more than I do (which is a lot) can attest to it: American players come in thinking “oh, it’s Europe; i’ll dominate easily”, only for them to leave the continent with their tail between their legs.
Because in reality, the Euroleague is NOT the D-League. European clubs do not care about American players’ development nor their desire to get to the NBA. They are not there to make players into better “prospects”. European coaches have the same mindset as NBA or even college coaches: they coach to “win games”. If a player is not helping them win games, they will part ways with them quickly. The stakes are too high in the Euroleague. There aren’t the number of games in Euroleague as there are in the NBA. And with a club’s spot in the Euroleague annually on the line (much like European soccer), organization’s patience is thin with players if they aren’t producing. That’s why you don’t see the Sixers exist in a European form in the Euroleague. Because a team that “tanks” would see themselves in the Eurocup or Champions League or FIBA Europe Cup rather than the Euroleague, and that difference is huge in terms of revenue. Every game is important in the Euroleague, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable to watch on a game-to-game basis in comparison to its NBA counterpart (though I still love the NBA regular season it just doesn’t have that Euroleague competitive spirit until the playoffs).
And that is the reality Bennett, and future American imports in general, face when they come to Euroleague squads. Some have recognized it, like Udoh. Some have not, like Smith. It will be interesting to see if Bennett can make that adjustment. Yes, Fenerbahce fans will have hope for him, as a former No. 1 pick and NBA player. But ultimately, what they, and Obradovic, will care about ultimately is what Bennett will do for this Fenerbahce team NOW. If he produces, he will be as beloved as Udoh this year, who has put his NBA failures behind him and has carved out a nice career with one of Europe’s best clubs. If he doesn’t, he will be just as discarded in Europe as he was in North America. His pedigree will be even more useless, because ultimately, what doesn’t matter to fans is what a player did in America. It’s what they do in the continent, in the Euroleague, in front of their own eyes. All-American or All-Conference or Ken Pomeroy POY awards don’t mean jack shit to them (Smith can attest to this).
For many ex-NBA players who come to the Euroleague, this is hard for them to understand. It’s hard for them to play for fans who don’t care or even know what they did in college or in their limited time in the NBA or D-League. Some players get away with it in the NBA because they have that fan base that pulls for them from their days back at Kansas, or North Carolina or Gonzaga. In Europe? Forget about it. The best American Euroleague players tend to be the ones who worked the hardest in college, who went under the radar and under-appreciated. It’s why guys like Daniel Hackett and Alex Tyus carve out a long-lasting careers. They had to earn their spot in their college careers against more highly-recruited and lauded players on an annual basis. And that mindset transitioned and served them well in Europe, where the stakes are even more cutthroat considering the money and expectations put upon American players by organizations, coaches and fans.
Will Bennett be able to do that? Udoh did. And Fenerbahce is hoping they will strike gold twice: invest in a deemed “NBA Bust” who revitalizes their career and makes the club better as a result. It will be interesting to follow, especially Bennett’s relationship with Obradovic, who is not exactly the most “nurturing” kind of coach. Obradovic is intense and competitive, and if Bennett doesn’t adjust, it is plausible that Bennett could be quickly out the door. With only 13 weeks left in the regular season, Zeljko has no time to be patient with anyone, let alone a former “NBA Bust.”
For Bennett, this is a last shot of sorts. Maybe he is doing this to gain good graces again amongst NBA front office members. Maybe he is doing this because he wants a fresh start where nobody will hang the “Greg Oden” label over his head. Maybe he is doing this because he wants to play and win and Fenerbahce gives him the best shot to be a part of a championship squad.
Only Bennett knows for sure why he’s packed his bags for Europe. The rest of us will just have to wait and see.
Welcome to Istanbul and the Euroleague, Anthony. The clock is ticking…