As was widely expected, Anthony Bennett declared his eligibility for the NBA draft at a Monday press conference, bringing his UNLV career to an end after one spectacular season.
Bennett is a consensus lottery pick, and a possible contender to be the top selection in June. After posting 16 points and eight rebounds this season, he was named to the All-Mountain West first team and won conference Freshman of the Year honors. That kind of production will be tough for UNLV to replace, and it’s not reasonable to expect any one player to fill his shoes.
What Bennett’s exit means for the Rebels:
Open auditions at 4/5
Bennett was a frontcourt starter from the minute he stepped on campus, and he played 25-plus minutes on most nights, alternating between power forward and center. Early contenders to fill those power forward minutes next year include 6-foot-8 junior Roscoe Smith, who will become eligible after sitting out a transfer year, and 6-foot-6 sophomore Savon Goodman. Neither has Bennett’s scoring prowess, but they’re both hard-nosed defenders who fit into Dave Rice’s pressure-defense scheme. The bigger question is who plays his minutes at center. Khem Birch will be the starter there, but there’s very little depth behind him, even if Carlos Lopez-Sosa chooses to return next year (as a four-year graduate student, Lopez-Sosa could potentially transfer to another school in hopes of more playing time). There are not centers in the incoming recruiting class, either, so expect the Rebels to play a good bit of small ball next season when Birch is off the court.
Bennett’s departure opens up another roster spot for next year, but don’t expect the coaching staff to add any more players to the incoming recruiting class. They recruited all year as if Bennett wasn’t returning, so they’ve already filled their allotment of five new scholarship players. Of the incoming freshmen, 6-foot-10 Findlay Prep forward Christian Wood might be the best bet to see some of Bennett’s minutes.
Opening up the offense
The Rebels’ fast-break attack never really materialized this season, and while no one is suggesting the offense will be better without Bennett, don’t be surprised if we see an uptick in transition chances. Bennett had perimeter skills, but he was a power player first and foremost. With more mobile players like Smith and Goodman taking the lion’s share of his playing time next year, the Rebels may be able to cover ground more quickly in transition and attack opponents in the open court the way Dave Rice has always envisioned.
Even though Bennett was only at UNLV for one season, the basketball program should benefit for years into the future. Bennett’s presence on the recruiting trail is huge, a fact Rice acknowledged at the press conference.
“The thing that excites me is that for the next 10 or 15 years in the NBA, every time it says ‘Anthony Bennett,’ it will say ‘Anthony Bennett, UNLV.’ And that speaks volumes for what he’s meant to this program,” Rice said. “This is a big deal, the fact that we haven’t had a first-round draft pick at UNLV since 2003.”