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Canadian NBA rookie Anthony Bennett finds patience after rough start

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CLEVELAND - The NBA All-Star weekend is the unofficial halfway mark of the NBA season and to say Anthony Bennett's rookie campaign hasn't gone quite as expected so far would be an understatement.

The 20-year-old rookie from Toronto, the first Canadian ever selected with the first overall pick in the NBA Draft when the Cleveland Cavaliers grabbed him in 2013, has had anything but a storybook beginning to his professional career.

While the rest of the NBA’s best and brightest spent their weekend in New Orleans for All-Star festivities, Bennett was just the second No. 1 pick to not be selected for the annual Rising Stars game, composed of the league’s best rookie and sophomore players since Washington’s Kwame Brown in 2001.

Bennett is patient when asked about his struggles. After starting his professional career 0-for-15 from the floor, he's had to get used to talking about it.

"Well, it's not the way I planned it to go, I can say that," Bennett said. "I'm pretty sure everything will turn around soon. I’m working hard and I've got my teammates with me. The coaching staff has been helping me a lot so I’ve just got to keep my head up and go hard."

While his start hasn’t been ideal, Bennett has faced the music and remained calm amid pressures and criticisms coming from all angles. Speaking in the Cavaliers locker room before a recent game in Cleveland, Bennett was frank about his struggles this season, while also confident that the tide was turning.

"It's overwhelming, but I’m pretty level headed," Bennett said. "I've got nice teammates who have been in the league a few years. They can tell me a lot of what they’ve been through. I've been humble, level headed and working every day."

The advice from teammates and coaches is the same: keep working.

A visit to the Cavaliers practice facility showed he is taking that advice to heart. Long after everyone else has left the floor, Bennett remained. Practising free throws under the watchful eye of an assistant coach, Bennett looked like any other NBA rookie.

"Everybody has had their part," Bennett said of the Cavaliers organization. "Helping me with my game, shooting after practice, or pulling me aside and giving me pointers here and there. Everybody has been really helpful."

Injuring his shoulder prior to the NBA Draft, Bennett’s rookie season was derailed before it began.

Missing the Las Vegas Summer League where rookies get their first taste of NBA life, while also being unable to train during the offseason, Bennett came into the Cavaliers training camp with extra weight to accompany the extra pressure that every first overall pick carries with him.

Playing sparingly at the beginning of the season, Bennett has worked hard to shed the extra pounds and get into game shape so he’s ready to go when his name is called.

Last Tuesday night, in a victory against the Sacramento Kings, Bennett posted his best performance to date, recording 19 points and 10 rebounds. He followed up the next night with a two-point, two-rebound performance.

Bennett’s roller-coaster experience serves as a reminder of the patience necessary when drafting young players each year. With half a season behind him, Bennett is starting to get a feel for what to expect each night he steps onto the floor as a pro.

"In college it would be one game, someone’s a seven-footer, but the next game someone is six-foot-six," Bennett said. "Everyone is pretty much the same size now. You’ve got to go hard every time."

In addition to staying after practice for extra work, Bennett often returns for a second session.

How does the first overall pick deal with the lows that have accompanied his season thus far? With a little help from his hometown friends.

"My close friends from back home, they’ve been with me from the start, before this [being in the NBA], so they see my ups, they see my downs. They know what I’m going through."

After a game where he hasn’t performed well, or even gotten the chance to get off the bench, they are the ones who help keep Bennett focused on what’s in front of him.

"Every time I have a bad game or am feeling down, I hit them up and they tell me to keep staying with it," Bennett said. "They'll come out here and after bad games they’ll go with me straight to the gym. That’s something that’s really helpful for me and I’m thankful for it."

As Bennett begins to show flashes of why the Cavaliers wanted him in the first place, he isn't allowing an unexpectedly difficult beginning make him lose sight of the fact that he's living his NBA dream.

"It's a huge honour. It's a blessing, you know? I just can’t let this opportunity slide for me. I have to work hard every day. This is my job. I have to work hard and be happy about it."

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