Under his previous rookie contract, Bennett, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, was due $5.8 million this season with a $7.3 million team option for 2016-17. The Timberwolves had until Nov. 2 to decide on the option, which they were almost certain to decline. Even with the NBA's salary cap rising, Bennett was set to make far more than the mid-level exception, an exorbitant amount for a player who has yet to clear replacement level in two seasons as a pro.
Now expected to sign with his hometown Raptors, according to Insider's Jeff Goodman, Bennett will be making $947,276, the league's minimum salary for players with two years of experience. That lower price tag puts less pressure on Bennett to contribute immediately and makes him a worthy gamble for Toronto.
Bennett as 'second draftee'
Former ESPN Insider John Hollinger, now with the Memphis Grizzlies, popularized the term "second draft" to describe how teams could find value in promising prospects who washed out on their original contract but were still young enough to have potential.
I revisited the "second draft" concept last season and found it wasn't working for high draft picks, in large part because of their salaries. In general, rookie contracts are the league's best value, because the pay for first-round picks is capped far below what they would command on the open market. Salary is set based on draft position, so high draft picks are the exception to this rule. (I even mentioned Bennett as a possible example back in January.)
Bennett's contract made it difficult for Minnesota to find a trade partner when they decided this summer to move on because of a crowded depth chart in the frontcourt. It also made claiming Bennett off waivers unpalatable for the two teams with the cap space to do so, the Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers.
Even for a team far below the salary floor like the Blazers, claiming Bennett made little sense because they would have had only a month to evaluate him in training camp before deciding on his team option. Declining the option would have made Bennett an unrestricted free agent at season's end, meaning if he did break through, his new team would have had to pay him market value in 2016-17.
As soon as Bennett cleared waivers, he was no longer tied to his rookie contract. That will allow him to sign with the Raptors, who can only offer him the veteran's minimum because they have already used all their available salary-cap exceptions. At that price, Bennett is well worth a roster spot -- particularly if Toronto is able to get him on a two-year contract, which would make him a bargain in 2016-17 if he plays well.
How Bennett fits in Toronto
Given his low cost, it's easy to see why signing Bennett made sense for the Raptors. But for the homecoming to make sense for him, the 22-year-old is going to have to be able to carve out a spot in the rotation. The Raptors are unsettled at power forward after starter Amir Johnson signed with the Boston Celtics in free agency. Still, there are plenty of candidates for minutes. Reserve Patrick Patterson is the most likely replacement, and Toronto signed veteran Luis Scola over the summer. Small forwards DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson are also capable of playing power forward in smaller, quicker lineups.
Because they have interior presence Jonas Valanciunas at center and guards who like to attack the basket off the dribble, the Raptors have generally favored power forwards with shooting range. Patterson made 105 3-pointers last season, the league's eighth-highest total among post players. Scola also plays primarily on the perimeter, though he favors long 2-pointers, having shot 44.5 percent on 2-point attempts beyond 16 feet in his career, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Bennett brings a relatively similar skill set, just not the same results. Last season, 46.8 percent of his attempts came between 16 feet and the 3-point line, which was the league's third-highest rate among players with at least 200 field-goal attempts, per Basketball-Reference.com.
For contrast, Patterson took 100 fewer 2-point attempts beyond 16 feet while attempting 238 more shots in total than Bennett. And unlike Scola, who is one of the league's more accurate shooters from midrange, Bennett shot just 33.1 percent from the distance. There are two options for Bennett. Either he has to give up on the perimeter game entirely and focus on scoring around the basket or he has to develop 3-point range. Playing in Toronto makes it likelier that Bennett will push his game beyond the arc, the simplest solution. After all, even his 26.3 percent career shooting from 3-point range has been more valuable than his long 2s because of the additional point. Bennett's effective field-goal percentage on 3-point attempts, accounting for their extra value, is a more acceptable 39.4 percent.
To beat out Patterson or Scola for playing time, Bennett will have to not only become a more efficient scorer but also improve his defensive effort, as Grantland's Zach Lowe detailed earlier this week. It won't be easy, since Patterson and Scola are established veterans, but the Raptors don't have a long-term solution at the position.
Both Bennett and Toronto are surely hoping that he'll be more comfortable and more successful playing in a supportive environment without the expectations that accompanied being selected No. 1 overall. If not, at least taking a look at Bennett won't cost the Raptors much.