Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Words alone can’t properly describe Anthony Bennett’s potential within the UNLV system this year. To understand it you must see it, because seeing is believing when it comes to the first McDonald’s All-American to commit to the Rebels out of high school in more than two decades. That potential was the biggest, emphasis on big, thing to come out of UNLV’s first official practice Friday at the Mendenhall Center.
“You can see it just by looking at him,” junior Mike Moser said. “My man is 6-foot-9, he can shoot the ball from 35 feet, he can put it on the floor, jump out the gym; the sky’s the limit with this kid.”
That distance is a bit much, although Bennett said the main thing he’s been working on since arriving back in Las Vegas in August was his shooting, including extending his range to make himself even tougher to defend.
There’s a lot to like about this UNLV team. It’s a solid mix of veterans and newcomers and it’s also the second year under coach Dave Rice, so everyone is a little more familiar and comfortable with each other and the system. Those factors plus the surplus of athleticism UNLV has at seemingly every position are why several national media members are predicting big things for this season.
“We’re probably better than we were at the same time last year just off the talent that we added,” Moser said. “To get that cohesiveness we had at the beginning of last season will be key.”
UNLV began last year 8-0 and enjoyed great success before eventually finishing with a disappointing loss to Colorado in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament. And one thing the Rebels didn’t have during that great opening stretch or during the struggles at the end was a dominant post presence. That’s what Bennett offers.
He can slide between the four- and five-spot and will have a chance to extend the defense farther and farther to the perimeter if his outside shot gets more consistent. Last year’s three-headed inside attack of Brice Massamba, Carlos Lopez and Quintrell Thomas was far from ideal. You never knew which one was going to get the most playing time on a given night in part because none of the three really set himself above the rest. That’s not an issue this year, and the influx of post talent has already seemed to raise the games of senior Thomas and junior Lopez.
Despite dealing with a stomachache, Bennett kept pace during UNLV’s multiple fast breaks Friday and moved fluidly around the paint. He’s got the gracefulness of a player much lighter than his 240-pound frame, yet Bennett says there’s still many people he can learn from, starting with sophomore Khem Birch.
“His post moves are crazy,” said Bennett, who added that he’ll be calling up his former AAU teammate for some one-on-one workouts to steal his secrets.
Bennett said it’s been about two years since the Canadian duo had practiced together. Since then Birch, also a McDonald’s All-American, went to Pitt, decided it wasn’t working and landed at UNLV, just a short drive from Bennett at Henderson’s Findlay Prep.
Bennett is the only scholarship player at Mendenhall who hadn’t experienced a full collegiate practice yet. The other freshmen all made the trip to Canada this August, complete with 10 days of practice leading up to it, while Birch and UConn transfer Roscoe Smith, who’s redshirting this year, each have plenty of hours logged already. Bennett said the main difference between Friday and his practices at Findlay is the length. The intensity’s the same, he said, but at UNLV you have to sustain it for a full two hours.
“Your teammates help you get there,” Bennett said.
An underrated thing about his new post player, Rice said, is that Bennett is already a good teammate. Working with the rest of a loaded front court and taking advice from an experienced back court have come easy thus far. And that may be the most important for Bennett’s progress the rest of the year, Rice said, because all it takes is one look at him on the court and you know he’s got everything else.
“His talent level speaks for itself,” Rice said.