LAS VEGAS -- For the first time in a long time, Anthony Bennett is enjoying basketball. Professional athletes are a proud group, and when that confidence is sapped, things can turn ugly. Late in the third quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers' Summer League win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, Bennett returned to the bench to a rousing ovation from the crowd at his alma mater's gym, grinning ear-to-ear as his teammates greeted him. The Bennett that has showed up in Summer League couldn't be more different from the overweight, miserable, checked-out player that became the butt of all manner of jokes last season.
Bennett's rookie year was a nightmare on every level. Coming off shoulder surgery that ended his UNLV career, he showed up out of shape, averaged just 12 minutes per game while missing 30 games, and was generally awful when he did play for the Cavs. He averaged just 4.2 points and three rebounds per game and became the first No. 1 pick to not make either the first or second All-Rookie team due to non-injury reasons since Kwame Brown in 2002. His college nickname, "Big Daddy Canada," became less about his impact and more about his weight. Even in a draft as weak as 2013, the pressure of being a top pick weighed on him and destroyed his confidence. At one point, he temporarily deleted his Twitter account because the hateful messages became too overwhelming.
"I just put a lot of pressure on myself," Bennett said on Sunday. "Things weren't going right for me. Everything just collapsed and built up. I got down on myself."
His new coach, David Blatt, is just as eager to erase Bennett's rookie season as he is.
"Anthony came in with a clean slate," Blatt said. "Physically, he's really worked hard. I think that's the most important thing, to get in shape. Last year is in the past. We're looking ahead, and I really believe and hope that he's going to be a big part of what's ahead."
At Summer League, Bennett is a different player. He's lost a considerable amount of weight, drawing deserved "best shape of his life" buzz on media row. A breakaway dunk in the Cavs' Summer League opener on Friday drew disbelief at first, but any cynicism had dissipated by the end of the night. His second game did not disappoint -- he finished with 14 rebounds and displayed a shooting range and knack for smart passes that was nowhere to be found last season.
"I haven't been feeling like this since college or high school," Bennett said. "I feel like last year was just a setback for me."
As must be reiterated every year around this time, Summer League success is no guarantee of success in the NBA. But for Bennett, just getting in shape is half the battle. His selection ahead of more highly touted names like Nerlens Noel and Victor Oladipo was a surprise, but he's always had the talent. It was simply a matter of harnessing it, something last season's dysfunctional Cleveland locker room was not conducive to. Now, the focus is on eating right -- as long as the conditioning is there, the results will follow.
"It wasn't really that tough," Bennett said of the battle to stay in shape. "For me, my body is kind of weird. I can gain weight fast, I can lose weight fast. It's a matter of maintaining it, watching what I eat. I've had a chef for the whole year. He's been giving me the right stuff to eat."
The return of LeBron James has a seismic impact on every player on the Cavaliers' roster, but perhaps none more so than Bennett. He may be a No. 1 pick coming off a disastrous rookie year, but he's the fourth-most famous No. 1 pick on his own team. When that company includes a budding All-Star point guard in Kyrie Irving, an explosively talented forward in the freshly drafted Andrew Wiggins, and an all-time great in James, there couldn't be less pressure on Bennett.
James also brings a level of accountability and leadership that was nowhere to be found in Cleveland last season. James' Miami Heat teams were able to take risks on players with baggage like Chris Andersen and Michael Beasley because James and Dwyane Wade had the credibility and respect of the other players to make sure that if those players didn't come in with the right mindset, they wouldn't see the floor. Andersen panned out and became a key piece of the Heat's 2013 title run. Beasley was never able to consistently crack the rotation. If Bennett shows up to training camp out of shape, James isn't going to let it slide. It's the best thing that could have happened to Bennett's career.
For now, though, his goals are simpler.
"I just want to go out there and prove to everyone that I can play."