The Meaning of Anthony Bennett

Sometime in the next three weeks, the superstar big man’s first (and probably only) season at UNLV will end. But he’ll be influencing the Rebels for years to come.

What is Anthony Bennett worth to the UNLV basketball program?

Not in a monetary sense, of course—according to the NCAA, college athletes don’t generate any revenue for their schools. But in terms of everything else, how do you quantify Bennett’s value?

It’s an interesting question, because when talking about Bennett, it’s difficult to stay in the present tense. The future permeates every aspect of his sometimes-spectacular (and almost certainly short) collegiate career. For all of Bennett’s powerful dunks and silky-smooth 3-point bombs, nothing he does on the court this season will be as important as how he impacts the UNLV program after he’s gone.

☆ ☆ ☆

Everything about the Anthony Bennett experience has been carried out with an eye toward the future, and that’s how it’s been ever since the day UNLV landed a commitment from the former Findlay Prep star last May.

Bennett was the highest-profile high school recruit in UNLV history—a more heralded prep than even Stacey Augmon in 1987 or Sidney Green in 1979. In an age of close relationships and constant contact fueled by camps, AAU tournaments and social media, recruits are talking more than ever about hopes, dreams and hot programs. And, right now, many of them are talking about Anthony Bennett and UNLV.

When Dave Rice took over as head coach two years ago, UNLV—despite its championship heritage and its 2007 Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament—was not a premier college basketball hub. In the eyes of the nation, the Rebels were a mid-major school in a mid-major conference. It didn’t help that the latest high school prospects weren’t even alive during the glory days of Rebel basketball.

There was a serious lack of national cache.

It took Bennett less than one season to change that. By mid-November he’d already made national highlight reels with his thunderous dunks and put himself on the short list of top freshmen in the nation. Bennett Fever eased as the season went on, and the Rebels fell from the Top 25. But, thanks to the freshman power forward, the UNLV brand is still bigger than it’s been since the Tarkanian era. That’s star power, and if Rice and his staff play it right, it will pay lasting dividends for UNLV.

Every time Bennett throws down an alley-oop, a high school recruit sees it. Whenever he blocks a shot into the stands, an AAU coach takes notice. If Bennett wants to break out his signature biceps flex, he can do it with the full support of the UNLV program, because there are 16- and 17-year-old phenoms watching on TV and flexing along with him.

And when Bennett walks to the podium on NBA draft night, he’ll be doing it as a Rebel. Don’t think that fact is lost on Rice—he fully understands Bennett’s ability to serve as a walking, talking (and flexing) advertisement for UNLV basketball for years to come.

For elite high school players, nothing is more attractive than a school and coach with a proven track record of producing NBA draft picks—especially lottery selections. Rice will be able to bring any recruit into his office, show him a framed photo of Anthony Bennett wearing a nice suit and holding up a No. 1 Charlotte Bobcats jersey, and the message will be clear: “Come to UNLV, and this could be you.”

How’s that for value? And we haven’t even touched on Bennett’s on-court performance yet. Throw in 16 points, eight rebounds and three or four highlight plays per game, and Bennett has energized the fan base and helped lift the Rebels to a 23-8 record and a No. 3 seed in the Mountain West Conference tournament.

A deep NCAA tournament run would only solidify Bennett’s legacy at UNLV, bring more attention to the program and make the Rebels even more attractive to future prospects.

For those reasons, Anthony Bennett is UNLV’s most prized commodity. Rice understands that, and that’s why he’s been willing to make sure Bennett’s stay in Las Vegas is as comfortable as possible.

Not to throw around the term “kid gloves,” but there’s a reason why Bennett is whisked away before reporters can speak to him after practice and has rarely been brought to the podium for postgame press conferences. Like a lot of kids who just turned 20, Bennett is soft-spoken and somewhat camera shy. So if he prefers not to talk to the press, the program is willing to shield him.

And when Bennett’s questionable conditioning led to some notable instances of loafing during early-season games, the blowback from the coaching staff was minimal. Reducing his playing time was out of the question: Why risk upsetting Bennett when the safer option is to let him enjoy his time at UNLV and then watch him smile for the cameras on draft night and tell the world how much he loved it here?

Don’t forget, Rice is a young coach. This is just his second year as the head man, and he’s never gone through the experience of shepherding a one-and-done superstar through a college campaign. Like all kinds of rare good fortune, it’s a complicated business.

☆ ☆ ☆

Imagine if you had a winning lottery ticket, and you had to walk a mile to deposit it in your bank account. How slowly (or quickly) would you walk? What route would you take? What time would you go? How many times would you check your pocket to make sure it was still there?

That’s what Bennett represents for UNLV. To shift metaphors, he is a weapon to be cherished and protected as much as to be deployed. He’s being talked about as the potential top pick in the NBA draft. And all the while, young ballers are buzzing about the Rebels like it was the old days.

In other words, Anthony Bennett has put UNLV back on the map—and he’s positioned it to stay there. And it’s hard to put a price on that.