LOS ANGELES — Being the No. 1 selection in the NBA draft comes with a steep grading curve.
Being first comes with the expectation of being the best. The top picks are not only judged against their draft class, but against all of the No. 1 selections who came before them.
Will they become an all-time, top-10 level great like Elgin Baylor (No. 1 in 1958), Oscar Robertson (1960), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969), Magic Johnson (1979), Hakeem Olajuwon(1984), Shaquille O’Neal (1992), Tim Duncan (1997) or LeBron James (2003)?
Will they do their talents justice in the manner of Hall of Famers Walt Bellamy (1961), Bob Lanier (1970), Bill Walton (1974), David Thompson (1975), James Worthy (1982), Patrick Ewing (1985) or David Robinson (1987)?
Bennett sat down for an extended one-on-one interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com last week while at a “Call of Duty: Ghosts” multiplayer reveal event at L.A. Live, where he played the game with Lakers newcomer Nick Young and Clippers center DeAndre Jordanagainst the U.S. Marines in attendance.
What follows is an edited transcript of our chat:
McMenamin: There’s only been about 65 No. 1 picks for as long as the league’s been around. Do you feel any extra responsibility or sense of duty being in that group?
Bennett: Not really. I can just go out there and play my game. I’m surrounded with a great group of guys, a great group of staff members, too. So I can only get better from here. So I feel no pressure. I just go out there and play my game.
When you woke up on draft morning, where did you think you would end up at the end of that night?
I heard I was going to be going from [No.] 3 to 8, just the word that was getting around. But I didn’t really pay too much attention about that. It was just wherever I ended up, I was ready to work hard and give all my effort.
What’s it been like since then? Have you felt your life change already?
I’ve just kind of been laid-back. I’ve been in Cleveland and Toronto a few times, going back and forth. Cleveland, for rehab, training and stuff at the facility. Toronto, I got to throw the first pitch for the Blue Jays game, a coin toss for the Argonauts game. There was a whole bunch of things I had to do back in Canada.
I know you’re still dealing with the shoulder, but were you involved in the Canada basketball camp that Steve Nash ran?
I was there, but I was not playing. Just doing treatment on my shoulder while everybody was playing. It was a great, great, great experience. Everybody came out. Everybody was going hard. They played Team Jamaica twice and I think they won both times and I had a chance to watch the second one. It was real cool, man. Real cool.
When Nash is playing the GM role, what’s he like running the ship?
He knows when to have fun and he also knows when to be serious. Every time I talk to him, he’s just always giving me great advice, telling me a lot of things about the league and what I need to look forward to, what I need to watch out for. He’s just a great guy to have in your phone that you can call up.
Canada is trying to get its basketball program in order. Where do you feel that’s headed right now? Obviously yourself being the No. 1 pick, your teammate Tristan Thompson, I heard you mention Tyler Ennis in another interview and then of course, Andrew Wiggins. Do you guys all feel that you’re coming up at the same time?
I mean, yeah! This is a great time for Canadian basketball. We have a great group of guys at the NBA level, at the college level and even in high school. I feel like every level we have a decent amount of guys that can potentially be lottery picks.
Have you guys had conversations like, “The 2016 Olympics should be fun?” I know you need to qualify still, but have you thought about what that experience could be like?
It would be crazy. When I was at the Team Canada camp, everybody was saying our goal is to get to the 2016 Olympics and hopefully win a medal there. That’s our goal. Everybody is pushing for it. Everybody is working real hard, even in the offseason. It can be a pretty big deal.
You were 16 years old when you left Brampton, Ontario, to go to West Virginia for prep school. I know you’ve spoken about how close you are with your mom. Was that a tough thing to go through?
It was tough but at the same time, I already had five other Canadian players attending that school that I knew pretty well. So I was pretty cool. The dean of the school, the coach, they were all really cool. I just felt like that year was a family. Everybody came from different parts of the world, we had people from Africa, Spain, Italy, Toronto, other parts of Canada and we had a couple players from the States. It was really international.
You went from there, to Findlay to UNLV to Cleveland. Have you thought about how much of a whirlwind that is? Do you think that’s helped you grow and mature?
Yeah, of course! Living by yourself, technically by yourself, at the age of 16 is not easy to do. It was just something I really took and matured quick. I had to grow up even faster than I grew physically. I couldn’t do anything irresponsible or else I would get in trouble for it. So I just kind of stuck to school, stuck to basketball and just chilled with my teammates off the court.
So you’re 20, you were born in ’93, do you even remember Michael Jordan playing a live game for the Bulls?
You’ve only been playing hoops since you were 12. So, what are your first memories?
Vince Carter, man (laughing). Vince Carter when he played with the Raptors. It was a pretty good team. They used to kill.
Is that why you wore No. 15 in college?
No. I just picked the number. Just because.
And you’re wearing No. 12 with the Cavs?
No. Fifteen. I got that changed.
So it’s just a random number?
Yeah, I just picked it. I was supposed to be No. 22 in college, but my teammate already had that number so I was like, “Whatever, I’ll go for No. 15.” That’s what happened. I stuck with it.
I saw you did an interview with Dennis Scott on NBA TV and he asked who was going to be rookie of the year and you kind of looked at the camera and nodded that it was going to be you. Is that your expectation?
That’s one of my goals. I’m going to try to achieve it. Try to work hard. But that’s just individual stuff. I got to focus on the team for my first year. I got to go out there and play my role, give all my effort out on the court and listen to everybody. They know a lot more things than me at this moment. So I just got to go out there with a clear mind. I’m not going to go into every game, “I need to drop 20 and 10.” I just got to go out there and do me.
What happens between now and training camp? How’s your shoulder doing?
It’s getting better along the way. I’m not sure when I can play. I’m not trying to give no deadlines or anything, but it’s coming along pretty well. I’m just doing rehab, trying to strengthen it just so everybody can feel more comfortable when I’m out there playing. Hopefully, at the end of this month [I can play], but you never know.
What sense have you gotten about Kyrie Irving?
He plays a great part on the team. He’s a great point guard. He looks for everybody and he can score, but I feel like we have a whole team. Everybody can do their part well. Me coming in, I just want to play my part. If it’s rebounding or setting screens or something, I just want to do anything out of my game. I just want to go out there, get to know everybody personally and just have fun.
What’s (coach) Mike Brown done so far to get to know you or to get you ingrained into his program?
We’ve kind of just been talking every now and then. Every time I see him, we’ll have a good 10-15 minute conversation. Nothing about basketball. It’s just off-the-court stuff — what I like to do, what I like to eat. He’s just a real cool guy and at the end of the day he’s just trying to look out for me and help me get better.
A lot of people are thinking about the summer of 2014 already and what LeBron James will do. How often do you hear, “Are you going to be LeBron’s teammate?”
I heard that a lot. But you know, the only thing I can do is just focus on the team that we have and we’re building right now. Not trying to get ahead of ourselves, not trying to throw away the season or nothing. We just got to out there, play hard and compete.
Andrew Bynum has had some health issues, but what do you think about a front line of you at 6-8, 240, going next to a guy who is 7-foot, 260 by your side?
It could be pretty crazy with [Anderson] Varejao and Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson as well. There’s a lot of other guys that can play the 4 and the 5 spot, but I feel like we have a good team going in this year. Great guards. I think if we just work hard in practice, try to build team chemistry, everything will be fine.
Are you a 4?
I’m a combo, I guess. I’m just a forward.
I saw an interview with Brown where he said, “We’re going to start Anthony off at the 4.” But you shot almost 40 percent from 3 in college, you have the skill set to play the 3. How do you view that? Is it a thing that matters to you or is it just about being on the court?
It’s just being on the court, contributing in any way you can. I don’t feel like anybody is just a 3 player, he can only do this and that. If you’re versatile, you can play many positions. You just got to go out there and perform.
Why basketball? What do you love about basketball?
I just feel like every time I’m on the court I just clear my head, clear my mind. Anything that’s bothering me in the day, I just go out there and play. I could just put up some jumpers, work out and everything will be fine after. I just feel like it’s just my time away from everything.
You get a lot of Larry Johnson comparisons because you went to UNLV, but are there guys you actually model your game after?
Not really. I mean, I take a couple of moves here and there. Melo [Carmelo Anthony], his face-up game. His jab-step series is crazy. It’s crazy! So I try to use that. That’s basically what I’ve been focusing on. The jab step and the midrange game.
How much actual basketball work have you been able to do this summer or has it been mostly rehab?
It’s just been mostly rehab because I had surgery May 8, so I think it was like two weeks before that, that was the time I had to work out. It was still bugging me at that time, but I was kind of pushing through it. I learned a lot of stuff with [trainer] Jay Hernandez out in Long Island. Then after the surgery I had to shut everything down.
You mentioned it in your NBA TV interview during summer league, people call you fat. How do you deal with that?
I don’t really pay any attention to that at all. I know what I’m doing off the court. Everybody just sees pictures or videos of me and if it looks out of shape, they just assume that I’m fat or I’m not working. I do my time in the gym trying to get better. The season doesn’t start until like November, so I got a lot of time to get my body right.
You mentioned the rookie of the year goal, have you thought past that? Championships? All-Star? Things of that nature?
Not really. It’s all been team stuff. If everything goes right, we can make the playoffs. We already have great guys, great players, a great coaching staff. Just everybody in general, in that area, wants the best for themselves so I feel like the playoffs is something we can achieve. Other than that, it’s just rookie of the year [as my goal].