BROOKLYN — A year earlier than expected, a Canadian has stolen the show at the NBA Draft.
Toronto-born, Brampton-raised Anthony Bennett became the first Canadian ever selected first overall when the Cleveland Cavaliers stunningly selected him on Thursday night.
The Cavaliers kept the pick a secret right up until the last minute, before opting for the UNLV freshman.
About 30 minutes before the draft, Bennett had no clue where he was going.
“I’ve heard one through eight, but that’s just opinions,” Bennett told the Toronto Sun beforehand. “I don’t really pay attention to all of that. I’m just here with my family trying to enjoy it.”
He said he wasn’t nervous, but that changed once he got into the media podium, not long after he became the last No. 1 pick to shake hands with departing NBA commissioner David Stern.
“I’m just as surprised as everybody else,” laughed the affable Bennett, fighting off allergies and the shock.
“When they said my name, that’s when I knew when it happened.
“I didn’t really have any idea who’s going No. 1 … I heard everything was up for grabs.”
Bennett joins another Brampton product, Tristan Thompson, the previous born-and-raised Canadian record-holder, who was picked fourth overall two years ago.
Amazingly, Bennett said he started playing basketball only six or seven years ago, but he is well aware of what his achievement could mean for his country.
“It’s just crazy. I made history. It’s just like a long-time dream that I had. Next year with (Andrew) Wiggins (the Thornhill prodigy, who is a near lock to go first overall), hopefully he does well at Kansas. I’m rooting for him. I’m pretty sure he’ll get that No. 1 spot.”
Everybody’s long been expecting that for Wiggins. Few saw this coming for Bennett, who also played his AAU basketball for CIA Bounce, though never with Wiggins, who is two years younger.
Bennett and Thompson barely know each other and have never been close, but that should quickly change. While both might be best suited to the power forward position, Thompson had a strong second season for Cleveland, particularly when he moved to centre after Anderson Varejao was lost to injury. Bennett also might be seen as Cleveland’s long-sought after answer at small forward, given his ability to shoot the ball.
“I can contribute at the four, at the three. There’s things I still need to work on, but I feel like I’m a great teammate, unselfish,” Bennett said, the surprise still evident on his face.
“I think I can just fit in right away.”
And playing with another Canadian is nothing new for Bennett.
“That Canadian connection, basically I had that throughout my whole basketball career,” he said.
“At UNLV, with (Montreal’s) Khem Birch, Findlay Prep with Myck Kabongo. It goes all around. I’m really happy, I’m really excited and ready to take on this opportunity.”
New Cleveland head coach Mike Brown reportedly pushed extremely hard for Bennett and he should be the perfect taskmaster for Bennett. A defensive genius for a guy who is far better at the other end of the floor at this point. It could work out beautifully.
Nobody doubted Bennett’s explosive offensive capabilities, which is why he remained in the mix to go top three and eventually leapt over everybody.
Bennett averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds for UNLV, despite a shoulder injury that limited his effectiveness down the stretch. Bennett will miss training camp, but expects to be ready for training camp.
He has drawn comparisons to Larry Johnson, the UNLV product who went No. 1 overall back in 1991.
Bennett will give Cleveland some scoring punch up front. Varejao and Thompson provide defence and rebounding already and Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters can light it up from the backcourt.
That means the Cavs likely now are out of the mix to land Wiggins, which would have been the coup de grace and likely would have posed trouble for the Raptors and their grand plan to become Canada’s team.
For now, they’ll have to share that distinction with the Cavs, a franchise that nearly moved to Toronto 30 years ago.
A year from now, Canada will rule the hoops stage again, but on Thursday night, it was all about Anthony Bennett.