Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, June 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Thursday, the UNLV basketball program takes a giant step forward. It instantly becomes more creditable.
Thank you, Anthony Bennett.
The versatile 6-foot-7 power forward is expected to be selected early in the NBA Draft, becoming the highest Rebel taken since Shawn Marion went ninth overall in 1999 and showing other blue-chip recruits that UNLV is a program for showcasing talent while catching the eye of professional scouts.
Coach Dave Rice in his two seasons at UNLV has recruited higher caliber players in attempting to make over the roster, signing three players who were McDonald’s All-Americans. Bennett’s success in going from high school to the NBA in one short year with the scarlet and gray will be great ammunition for the coach to attract other elite recruits.
That’s all that matters for UNLV.
Forget about how the Rebels underachieved last season during Bennett’s one-and-done year or how Bennett struggled at times during the latter part of the season. And, please, don’t tell me how he could have done more — remember, UNLV had no true point guard to coordinate the offense in never finding its identity.
That had very little do with Bennett, who frequently was the Rebels’ lone option in averaging 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds. NBA scouts salivate at his ability to score from multiple spots on the court, dominating the paint for easy baskets on the inside and showing the ability to step outside and easily hit a jump shot.
Most games at UNLV, that was a common theme — Bennett rattling the rims with a powerful dunk on one possession, only to smoothly drain a 3-pointer minutes later.
It was so impressive that despite not being able to participate in pre-draft workouts because of shoulder surgery to repair an injury he suffered late in the season at UNLV, Bennett is still widely considered to have the most upside of any player in the draft.
That’s where the coaching staff at UNLV deserves credit. They gave him the freedom to flourish and helped develop his game.
It’s a selling point in recruiting that Rice and his staff, unlike other UNLV coaches the past two decades, will be able to use: Come to UNLV, entrust us with your talents, and you can become a high-draft pick and multimillion-dollar professional.
Sure, UNLV is far from Kentucky, the clear-cut leader in signing elite high school recruits and using them to make deep tournament runs before celebrating their quick jump to NBA. But at least the Rebels are in the conversation of successfully handling top talent.
More important, they have better experience with handling that talent after the trials and tribulations with Bennett. While his dominating performances were often celebrated, there were plenty of flaws that could easily be a red flag to NBA teams.
Bennett was a liability and often took plays off defensively, he wasn’t the best practice player, and stamina was always in question. Some will say this contributed to the UNLV downfall in a season where fans hoped the once-in-generation talent could help lead a deep NCAA Tournament run.
That’s where managing a one-and-done player isn’t easy. It’s human nature for those players to have one foot out the door, knowing the riches of the NBA are months away from becoming a reality.
That’s why some will say Bennett’s stay at UNLV wasn’t successful, using a first-game exit from the tournament as the lone measuring tool. Think outside the box.
While Bennett didn’t help the Rebels reach new heights, he’ll deserve mentioning when it finally happens. He was a trend setter, not a follower. He could have easily gone to Kentucky.
Instead, he was the first big-time recruit in arguably two decades to come directly from high school to UNLV. With the way Rice recruits, he won’t be the last.
“It’s a huge deal for our program,” Rice told the Sun's Taylor Bern this week. “The next 12 to 15 years when Anthony Bennett’s introduced in the NBA, it’s always 'Anthony Bennett, UNLV.'”
Bennett can’t be the last. For the program to continue to progress, there needs to be more five-star recruits, one-and-done careers and high NBA picks.