Cleveland Cavaliers forward Anthony Bennett hasn't lived up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall draft pick. That much is clear. What isn't as clear is why did the Cavs, with perhaps the most lucrative asset in professional basketball, select a prospect who wasn't even the best player available, nor fit the team's needs?
Hindsight bias may be real, but so are Bennett's well-documented struggles through the quarter mark of the regular season. While the popular counterargument is that the 2013 NBA draft was star-crossed, that still fails to account for how poor the Cavs' selection was when it occurred.
Disregarding current rookie performances, and taking into account time-tested draft metrics as was known on draft night, there was only one logical fit for the Cavs with the No. 1 overall pick—current Orlando Magic 2-guard Victor Oladipo.
Best Player Available
Yes, I know the 2013 NBA draft had zero sure-fire All-Stars. Heck, there weren't even any potential All-Stars.
According to ESPN.com Insider Chad Ford's annual draft tiers (subscription required), the league consensus was that last year's draft offered, at best, six solid rotation players: Bennett, Alex Len, Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel, Oladipo and Otto Porter Jr.
Mock drafts from Draft Express and NBAdraft.net mostly echoed Ford's sentiment, although both were less friendly to Bennett following news of his offseason shoulder surgery, predicting selections at No. 8 and No. 10 respectively.
Was this entirely fair to Bennett, whose injury was not even half as debilitating as Noel's torn ACL or even Len's left ankle?
Actually, it was fair. The crux of the pro-Bennett camp was that, at least within the amateur ranks, the UNLV forward was virtually unguardable. Measuring 6'7" with a 7'1" wingspan, his combination of athleticism, length and shooting stroke (53.3 percent from the field, 37.5 from beyond the three-point arc), made for a tantalizing offensive skill set.
But despite a favorable matchup in his NCAA tournament debut, Bennett was ultimately stifled on both sides of the ball by the California Golden Bears—a team that Bennett had previously bullied for 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting, as seen above.
Offensively, he was unable to solve the Bears' zone defense until the second half, converting only four of his 11 shots for a pedestrian 15 points. Defensively, the Bears turned the tables on the young stud with 6'10" senior forward Robert Thurman, who pushed Bennett around en route to a perfect 6-of-6 from the field—all dunks.
As for the other prospects, Porter floundered as his Hoyas were shocked by No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast, and McLemore nearly shot Kansas out of the tournament one round later, contributing only two points—both via free throws—in an eventual comeback victory over North Carolina.
Only Oladipo, who had quietly leapfrogged sophomore center Cody Zeller as the team's top prospect, seemed to deliver when the threat of elimination was on the line. His game-clinching three against Temple in the tournament's third round was a testament to the improvement of his oft-criticized outside shot. Between his sophomore and junior years, Oladipo had an unprecedented leap in field-goal percentage, from 47.1 to 59.9 (20.8 to 44.1 percent from three).
Furthermore, in the Hoosiers' Sweet 16 matchup against Syracuse, Oladipo seemed to be the only player not stumped by Jim Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 zone. He converted on five of his six shot attempts, finishing with a team-high 16 points along with three rebounds and three steals.
In a draft where no player was perceived as the clear-cut No. 1, Oladipo stood out as a capable off-ball threat who worked equally hard on both ends of the court. Not only would he have been the best player, he would have been the safest pick as well. You can't simply teach defensive intensity, as observers of the Cavs' current backcourt can tell you.
If you thought this season's Cavs were prone to the occasional defensive lapse, allow me to remind you of last season's squad.
The 2012-13 Cavs were a mess, and even that may be a compliment. Opponents shot 47.6 percent against the Cavs, a league-worst for defensive field-goal percentage. The Cavs simply had no rim protection, as opposing players finished 63.6 percent around the rim. Only Minnesota's opponents converted at a higher clip.
Life outside the arc wasn't particularly friendly either. Opponents made an above-average 37.2 percent from three-point territory, making the Cavs the sixth-worst three-point shooting defense.
On offense, Cleveland's troubles mirrored its defense. The Cavaliers' field-goal percentage was tied for fourth-worst in the league at 47.3 percent. Just as with this season, they had virtually nothing around the rim either, shooting a league-worst 52.4 percent from inside five feet. Their 34.6 percent shooting from three-point range was also far below average, ranking eighth-worst in the league.
Now, given that the source of the Cavs' woes on both sides of the ball seemed to stem from down low, by virtue of team need, shouldn't that have made big-men prospects such as Noel or Len the better choices at the No. 1 overall draft pick?
It's a nice idea—but no. Keep in mind that the Cavs lost starting center Anderson Varejao—then averaging a ridiculous career-best 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds—after just 25 games due to a blood clot in his lung. Pushing the panic button and acquiring either one of the two raw, injured—and in Noel's case, rail-thin—bigs would have been a mistake.
What the Cavs could have used was help on the perimeter. As gifted offensively as Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are, they were minus defenders last season. Starting both was a defensive nightmare. Opposing lineups combined for 46.4 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting (39.4 percent from three) when Irving and Waiters shared the floor.
The Cavs needed a defensive-minded off-guard who could play without the ball and finish efficiently from the floor. With that in mind, guess who led his conference in virtually every advanced defensive and efficiency-related metric?
Oladipo, that's who.
As a junior for the Hoosiers, he led the Big Ten in every category that matters here, including field-goal percentage (59.9) effective field-goal percentage (64.8), true shooting percentage (67.1), defensive rating (86.9) and defensive win shares (2.7). He also finished the season ranked second in the Big Ten in overall player efficiency rating and 10th in total rebounds.
As far as Waiters' capital on the 2-guard position is concerned, he's simply better playing off the bench. It's been true thus far this season and it was true last season as well. Emulating the super-sub role that earned him Big East Sixth Man of the Year honors in college, Waiters scored 16 points on 43.4 percent shooting in just 25.2 minutes his rookie season, as compared to to 14.3 points on 40.6 percent in 29.8 minutes as a starter.
Short- and Long-Term Potential
As far as immediate impact is concerned, this is where Bennett earns the nod over every other prospect—but it's also another reason why I believe he isn't the best long-term option for the Cavs to build around.
Coming out of UNLV, Bennett's NBA comparisons to Larry Johnson were inevitable, and uncanny. Both sport similar builds and looked to be prolific scorers and rebounders for their size. But Johnson peaked early, averaging 22.1 points and 10.5 rebounds in his second season with the Charlotte Hornets, but then never approached those heights again.
The game was slowly evolving, with young, multi-talented forwards like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan entering the league for the first time. Will the same eventually happen to Bennett if he does develop into a contributor?
The NBA landscape is now dominated by guard play. It is much easier for guards to enjoy extended careers (hello, Steve Nash) barring injury (goodbye, Steve Nash). Having a defensive stopper in the mold of Tony Allen—ironically, the NBA comparison given to Oladipo by NBAdraft.net—is now more of a luxury than ever.
As my first, second and last piece of evidence in light of this claim, I would like to present Damian Lillard:
I rest my case.
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