Wolves’ Bennett a ‘new man’ after offseason of transformation

Timberwolves forward Anthony Bennett averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game with Cleveland's summer league team this year.

Jesse Johnson/Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MANKATO, Minn. — Outside a Mankato Hilton Garden Inn conference room, Anthony Bennett peruses the dining options before him, carefully placing the healthiest offerings and portions on his plate.

There’s a delectable spread on the Timberwolves’ training table today — grilled chicken, pasta with red meat sauce, cold cuts and wild rice soup, among other foodstuffs. But Bennett passes over much of it.

"It’ll have to do," the 21-year-old power forward says with a smile.

A year ago, Bennett wasn’t so meticulous. Attention to detail didn’t characterize his first and only season in Cleveland; poor physical condition, injuries and DNPs did.

But this is the new Bennett making sure he’s consuming all the right fuel during training camp. The one who this summer was either in a gym, operation room or lugging medicine balls up and down the Santa Monica Stairs. The one wearing No. 24 for the Wolves, not the Cavaliers, who drafted him first overall last summer only to see him slough to a forgettable rookie campaign and eventually traded him to Minnesota in the blockbuster Kevin Love deal.

"You see a new man," Bennett had grinned earlier in the day, shortly after the Wolves wrapped up their morning practice.

The makeover

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It takes him a minute to recite all the changes that went into his transformation.

"I don’t even remember," Bennett says slowly. "There’s shoulder surgery, there’s LASIK. Tonsils. Adenoids. Working out with Frank. There’s a whole lot more."

In all, Bennett’s had five operations since the start of his NBA career. The first came before he was drafted, as surgeons operated on his rotator cuff to repair a tear in his labrum. After the Cavs surprisingly picked him first overall, Bennett missed summer league during his recovery.

Then came a fairly tumultuous rookie season. Then-coach Mike Brown announced Bennett was dealing with sleep apnea and asthma, a combination of nuisances that caused him trouble breathing and catching his wind during games and workouts.

That was part of the reason he showed up for his first training camp heinously out of shape.

"When you look at the guy that came to the draft lottery, he was there in a sling," Wolves president of basketball operations and coach Flip Saunders said at the team’s media day. "Even when he didn’t know he was going to be the No. 1 pick, he was hurt. And it just kept on going."

Did it ever. Bennett didn’t even make a shot until his fifth NBA game, going 1-for-20 during that stretch. Battling nagging injuries and fatigue, he appeared in just 52 games and averaged 4.2 points and three rebounds per game.

He had a second shoulder surgery, this one to repair a left patellar strain, late last season. Doctors removed his tonsils and adenoids in June, about a month before he averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game with Cleveland’s summer league team.

Bennett also underwent LASIK surgery to correct his vision, hence the protective goggles he’s supposed to wear until his eyes are fully healed.

(Bennett’s) like a canvas that hasn’t been painted yet. I like his commitment. . . . He does do a lot of things some other guys can’t do.

Coach Flip Saunders

His oversized tonsils and adenoids blocked his airways, especially during sleep. After the operations, Bennett feels "great," he said.

"(I’m) in as good condition as I could be."

But that goes beyond dealing with his ailments.

For three weeks in September, Bennett joined fellow Las Vegas prep product Shabazz Muhammad and teammate Ronny Turiaf in trainer Frank Matrisciano’s ultra-unique "chameleon training." While Muhammad and Turiaf participated in an entire six-week program, Bennett worked out for two weeks, left for a short while to tend to other matters and came back for the final week.

That particularly impressed Matrisciano, the guy they call "Hell’s Trainer" who claims 7 out of 10 people who start his program don’t finish.

"He killed it," said Matrisciano, who in addition to NBA athletes has trained Navy SEALs, triathletes, wartime boxers and the like.

Thanks to hours spent traversing the Santa Monica Stairs with medicine balls in tow, sprints on the beach with 50-pound weights on his back or pails full of sand in his hands, climbing hills of sand while Matrisciano tried to hold him back with a harness and performing other unconventional workouts, Bennett dropped about 10 pounds and weighs 243, he said. More importantly, he’s much more muscle than body fat and has continued to pay attention to his nutrition, a key component of "Crazy Frank’s" program.

‘Blank canvas’                                                                                                                  

According to Saunders, Bennett "tweaked" his leg and won’t play in Tuesday night’s preseason game at Indiana. It’s a minor concern at this point but further highlights the No. 1 priority for Bennett remains his health.

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Once that’s alleviated, there’s a place for Bennett and his athletic, 6-foot-8 frame on this team, Saunders said.

"He’s like a canvas that hasn’t been painted yet," Saunders said. Indeed, it’s almost like Bennett gets to start all over again, even though his rookie status is behind him.

Since his days with Canadian AAU club CIA Bounce — the same organization as teammate and 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins — Bennett has been able to run the floor and perform the less desired tasks down low. In his one season at UNLV, he averaged 16.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

He’s been one of the biggest surprises at training camp, Saunders said, shooting the ball magnificently after posting a 35.6 field-goal percentage last season. The coach has asked him to shoot fewer 3s (Bennett took 4.1 per game last year and made just 24.5 percent of them) and develop behind veteran Thaddeus Young, who also came over in the Love deal.

"I like his commitment," Saunders said. "He’s a willing learner, and he’s one of those guys that is going to continue to get better and better with us every day. He does do a lot of things some other guys can’t do."

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