MINNEAPOLIS — With three minutes to go in the first half Wednesday, Anthony Bennett slipped off a pick-and-roll screen, snared a well-timed pass from Zach LaVine in the left corner and flushed home one of those rim-rocking dunks Bennett made popular during the preseason. That earned a pat on the head from Timberwolves head coach and president Flip Saunders a couple moments later.
But at the next frame’s 5:35 mark, Bennett’s apparent attempt at throwing Justin Hamilton an alley-oop went so awry it ended up in the 10th row of Target Center seats. Saunders’ reaction this time: palms up, eyes popping, expression asking "what the heck was that?"
And then, sometime shortly after, the ankle that had kept Bennett out for 18 games started aching again. Saunders pulled him and said the second-year power forward might miss some more time after a three-game return.
One of those nights. That kind of year.
"A little," Bennett said sarcastically to a Canadian reporter inquiring about the Toronto native’s aggravation level this season. "It was definitely frustrating for me."
The sprained right ankle "AB" suffered Feb. 20 against Phoenix was just the latest of his problems. A season that was supposed to be resurgent after one of the worst-ever rookie campaigns by a No. 1 overall draft pick never quite left the runway, as Bennett struggled to play the necessary grinder’s game that would earn him Saunders’ favor.
When he has been healthy, Bennett’s averaged 5.2 points (4.2 last year in Cleveland), 3.7 rebounds (3.0), 0.8 assists (0.3), 0.4 steals (0.4) and 0.3 blocks (0.2) per game.
And in three games back from his injury, he wasn’t even capable of mustering those numbers. Not with his ankle still bothering him, even before tweaking it again in Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors.
"He’s definitely not where we’d like him to be," Saunders said. "He’s struggling a little bit running, and I give him credit for playing with a bad ankle. He wasn’t able to push off and do the things that’d he would’ve liked to do."
All this for a guy who could’ve vied for the Wolves’ training camp MVP, if such an award existed on record. After coming to Minnesota in better shape and having dealt with some health issues — poor vision, sleep apnea and asthma, primarily — that plagued his rookie season, Bennett averaged 20.7 minutes, 10.8 points on 51.4 percent shooting and 6.5 rebounds per game.
But Bennett began the regular season as Thaddeus Young’s backup. When he did see the floor, Saunders noted a lack of defensive energy and a tendency to settle for ill-advised shot attempts.
Then, a day after the Wolves traded Young for Kevin Garnett — giving Bennett and rookie Adreian Payne a new chance to audition for more playing time — Bennett hurt his ankle.
Originally, he was supposed to be out for at least two weeks. He wound up missing five.
"It kind of was the trainers and coaches’ decision," said Bennett, one of nine Minnesota rotational players to miss significant time during an injury-throttled season that has seven games remaining. "I didn’t really feel ready with the two or three weeks that they told me, so I just kept on doing rehab."
With the way the Wolves’ injury report has read lately, he’ll be lucky if he makes it back into the lineup. In the three games he did, Bennett played less than 11 minutes per game — a test run on the ankle, really, and nothing more.
He’s not conditioned, Saunders said. Hasn’t been able to run in almost six weeks.
"It’s tough when you’re undermanned, and it’s tough when you’re getting guys back and they’re trying to play," Saunders said. "It’s tough when young players are trying to establish themselves."
Focus around the Target Center is starting to shift toward the offseason, when Bennett plans to join Team Canada for Olympic qualifying and get some more "chameleon training" in with teammate Shabazz Muhammad and trainer Frank Matrisciano. He’s got three years left on his rookie contract, including a team option after next season and a qualifying offer in 2018-19.
Maybe Year 3 can be different. But Year 2 certainly hasn’t been.
"That’s the worst part of the game, is injuries," Bennett’s teammate and fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins said, who came here with Bennett in the Kevin Love trade. "But I know he’s a tough guy, so I know he’ll come back as soon as he can."