LAS VEGAS -- My in-flight film study on Monday was the ultimate freshman-post playlist: season-opener edits of four- and five-star giants such as Baylor's Isaiah Austin (vs. Lehigh), Kentucky's Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein (vs. Maryland) and Arizona's Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski (vs. Charleston Southern); and intriguing imports such as South Carolina's Michael Carrera (vs. Milwaukee) and Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski (vs. Southern Utah). I also tacked on exhibition footage (from an overtime win over Dixie State) of the five-star, Brampton, Ontario, import I was planning to see in person, UNLV's Anthony Bennett.
The goal was just to record first impressions, not render final judgments. November is when baby bigs start figuring out who they are -- and Bennett's trial run was a tad worrisome. He is a 6-foot-8 power forward with power and athleticism, yet two-thirds of his shot attempts against Dixie State were from beyond the arc, where he went 0-of-6. His form looked fine -- and Rebels coach Dave Rice calls Bennett a "terrific shooter" -- but when you're 6-8 and 240 pounds, with a 7-1 wingspan and first-round-pick explosiveness, it seems unwise to be doing two-thirds of your work on the perimeter. Bennett knew as much: "That game," he said, "did not go like I planned."
Fast forward to Monday night, the season-opener against Northern Arizona, where, as Rice said, there was a lot of pressure on Bennett to make an impact. He is the first McDonald's All-American to go to UNLV straight out of high school in 29 years, and he was debuting in front of the biggest home-opener crowd (18,187) in school history, including legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian (who said of Bennett, "He's got a lot of talent") and a student section that had a pre-planned "Can-A-Da" chant in his honor.
But Bennett's first shot, same as in the exhibition, was a missed three, just 10 seconds into the game. Would the perimeter pattern repeat itself? Or could he correct on the fly?
The answer, luckily, was the latter: Two minutes later, Inside Anthony Bennett took over for Outside Anthony Bennett and threw down a monster dunk on a dish from Mike Moser. Bennett flexed his biceps first for the crowd, then again for the Rebels' bench as he ran to join them after a timeout.
The dunk was the start of a personal 9-0 run for Bennett, who would lead UNLV in scoring in a 92-54 win. He finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in just 20 minutes of action. His was one of my favorite elite-frosh debuts, in part because he scored in so many different ways:
1. Dunking on a pass from Moser (twice, one of them featured as the Denny's Dunk of the Game -- part of a "redeem your ticket stub for a free stack of pancakes" promotion)
2. Running hard in transition, catching a pass on the run and spinning for a layup
3. Making a three-pointer (finally!) in the left corner
4. Posting up for a lefty baby-hook
5. Drawing a foul on a near-dunk in transition
6. Posting up for a righty baby-hook (twice, one with a foul and free throw)
7. Offensive rebound and dunk-back over two guys
8. Offensive rebound and gentle putback
I do not have a conclusive count on how many times Bennett celebration-flexed, although he estimated it at five or six. "I have to relax and do it only once or twice [from now on]," he said, "because I'm not trying to get a technical."
All he was trying to do was respond to the locals, some of whom had been cheering him on since his senior year at nearby Findlay Prep, and were overjoyed that he became Findlay's first five-star product to stay in Las Vegas for college. "At Findlay, we never used to celebrate like that, because our coach would get mad," Bennett said. "Here, I have a little more freedom."
Freedom of expression and freedom to operate in Rice's high-speed UNLV offense, where Bennett has the green light to fire from inside and outside -- but hopefully, more inside than outside. He has that Carmelo Anthony/Michael Beasley ability to confound college defenses with his versatility, but his success is contingent on striking the right balance.
Like Bennett, Austin put up 22 points in his opener against Lehigh ... but he did it in just 17 minutes, on 10-of-12 shooting, before being felled by an ankle injury that would force him to miss the Bears' second game. Those 17 minutes were promising enough, though, and they provided a decent glimpse of how Scott Drew plans to use the spindly 7-footer in Baylor's offense.
The first action they ran to get Austin involved was a pick-and-pop with A.J. Walton; Austin received the pass and, with no hesitation, knocked down a three. This pop-a-three sequence later repeated itself (with Brady Heslip as the passer) at the top of the key. Austin is a surprisingly smooth shooter for his size, and even though he has a slow release, it's unlikely to bother him; opposing centers are slow to step out to the perimeter, and his release point is so high, above his head, that a blocked shot is almost out of the realm of possibility.
Three of Austin's other buckets came on lobs from point guard Pierre Jackson, including a couple of set plays where Austin feigned setting a screen and beelined to the rim. His actual screening can use a lot of work; he tends to pop before contact is made, and he was called for two moving screens away from the ball against Lehigh. But he already brings serious value as a face-up shooter, lob collector and anchor of the Bears' 2-3 zone, and once his ankle heals, he figures to be the co-star of their offense along with Jackson.
Congrats, Frank Martin. Carrera, a two-star recruit on ESPN.com, a three-star on Scout.com and unrated on Rivals.com, looks like he could be one of the steals of the Class of 2012. I don't think what he did against Milwaukee in the Gamecocks' opener was a fluke: 17 points, 15 boards, three blocks in 29 minutes. The tape shows a guy who makes up for his lack of height by attacking the boards with a relentlessness that could put him in the Pierce Hornung/Arsalan Kazemi tier of ultra-productive, undersized rebounders. The fact that Carrera has a 7-2 wingspan doesn't hurt, either.
Carrera is a Montrose Christian product who came there from Venezuela, and he's almost as demonstrative on the court as countryman Greivis Vasquez was at Maryland. (Which means: very, very demonstrative. Arm pumps, screams, blown kisses, etc., etc.) But as long as he keeps channeling that energy into chasing down misses -- he grabbed 31 percent of available offensive boards in his debut! -- he'll make a big impact on a team that was desperate for frontcourt help.
Carrera doesn't have refined post moves -- he just spins and bulls his way to the rim, which against slower defenders will result in a ton of drawn fouls. (This is another Kazemi-like attribute.) Against Milwaukee he was 5-of-5 from the stripe, and showed shooting form that suggests he could knock down mid-range jumpers, but I didn't see him attempt one. Carrera may struggle to get shots off against the SEC's giants later in the season, but he won't get outhustled. He may have been a two-star prospect, but he has a five-star motor.