Three months removed from a trying rookie campaign, Anthony Bennett is in Las Vegas with plenty to smile about.
Returning to the city where he starred at UNLV — before the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the first Canadian to be selected first overall in the NBA Draft in 2013 — Bennett has impressed in his first summer league experience.
"He's improved his conditioning, he's improved his physique," Cavaliers head coach David Blatt said. "His confidence has gone up. This was a very positive week for AB and we're happy about that."
Bennett, who was rehabbing a shoulder injury last year, wasn't able to participate with the Cavs' summer league team before his rookie year, forcing him to play catch-up as he started his professional career.
'He's improved his conditioning, he's improved his physique. His confidence has gone up. This was a very positive week for AB and we're happy about that.' - Cavaliers coach David Blatt
Fit and healthy this time around, Bennett says he must make the most out of his off-season preparation.
"It was a hard season for me," Bennett said. "I just soaked up everything, learned as much as I can, spoke to everybody on the team about what I can do better. It was just a real learning experience for me. That's why I made a commitment to stay in the gym and just get right."
Opting to stay in Cleveland since the end of the regular season in April, Bennett has diligently been working out and sticking to the menu his chef has provided for him.
"I just got (together) with all of the coaches and trainers," Bennett said. "I was going to stay in Cleveland for however long it takes to get right. Pretty much, I've just been working."
Those efforts are already paying off.
During his first game in Las Vegas, a showdown between 2014 No. 1 and No. 2 picks Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, Bennett's sculpted physique stole the show. Shedding somewhere between 15-20 pounds over the last few months, Bennett looks and feels much lighter.
Most of all, he looks like a player ready to leave a lacklustre rookie season in the past.
"AB has been good since Day 1, since I came," Blatt said. "Really working hard to get himself in shape. He's really, really trying to do a lot of different things on the court to help the team win.
"It's a work in progress, but he's doing a great job and I hope he continues in the same fashion."
Injury, health concerns
In addition to the shoulder injury, Bennett dealt with both asthma and sleep apnea. Once the season ended, he had his tonsils and adenoids removed. The 21-year-old big man says those ailments, coupled with the pressures of being the top pick, weighed on him over the course of last year.
"It was fun, but all of the things I was going through — the pressure, the injury, the conditioning, not playing — all of that just built up on me," Bennett said. "It was kind of hard."
Following up his summer league debut with a 13-point, 14-rebound double-double, Bennett averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in four games with the Cavaliers. His 13.3 points-per-game average was second on the team behind the 15.5 averaged by Wiggins.
Playing in his college stomping grounds, Bennett has experienced plenty of love from fans. He says the support has only helped to keep him focused and confident.
"My whole first year I was kind of buried in pressure," Bennett said. "I put a whole lot on myself. I just want to go out there and play. Have fun."
He's also managed to remain calm amid rumours of a possible trade that would send him and Wiggins to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Love. Despite that, the two Canadians continue to keep their focus on strengthening relationships with teammates and their new head coach.
While Bennett will soon leave the comforts of his home away from home, and the built-in audience of UNLV fans at the Thomas and Mack Center where the games are played, he says he's appreciative of the past couple of weeks.
"It was definitely fun," Bennett said. "All of that was a really good feeling."