By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Canadian Anthony Bennett, a power forward who played one year at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, leaped over a pair of touted centers to emerge as number one pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers at Thursday's NBA Draft.
While many draft analysts predicted Nerlens Noel of Kentucky or Ukrainian Alex Len of Maryland would go No. 1, the versatile, 6-foot-8 Bennett was the surprise top choice of a Cavs team that finished last season with a 24-58 record.
"I'm just as surprised as everybody else," Bennett, who averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds as a freshman at Las Vegas last season, told reporters at Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets.
"I heard everything was up for grabs. But I'm just real happy, glad that I have this opportunity, and I just got to thank God for everything."
Injuries to Noel (knee) and Len (foot) may have cooled the Cavs to those young big men, but Toronto native Bennett himself required shoulder surgery at the end of his college season and that did not deter the Cavaliers.
"It's just crazy. Made history," said an excited Bennett. "It's just like a long-time dream that I had since I first started playing basketball.
"It's just crazy."
Bennett may be a touch smaller than classic the NBA power forward size, but he is strong, has a wide wingspan and good finishing moves around the rim, along with an accurate jumper that allows him to work from the outside as well.
"I can contribute at the four, at the three," said the 20-year-old. "There's things I still need to work on, but I feel like I'm a great team mate, unselfish. I think I can fit in right away."
Bennett said he had no clue he was going number one overall.
"When they said my name, that's when I knew," he said. "I had no idea before."
Bennett will be joining compatriot Tristan Thompson on the Cavs, who took the Canadian forward with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Thompson averaged 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds a game last season for Cleveland.
"He's just a great guy,' said Bennett. "He seems real cool. Both from the same area. I'm going to be seeing him a lot."
Bennett was the first UNLV player to be voted Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 13 seasons and earned first-team All-Mountain West honors after leading the Rebels in scoring, rebounding and three-point percentage.
The Canadian scored in double figures in his first 17 games as a collegian, racking up 12 double-doubles, and scored 20 or more points 13 times.
Bennett's coach, Dave Rice, gave a sterling recommendation of his young forward before the draft.
"There's not much that he can't do on a court," said Rice.
"He can score from the perimeter. He can score in the post. He's a fabulous rebounder. The only thing that he lacked coming in was just experience."
Bennett predicted Canadians could go back-to-back atop the NBA Draft with Andrew Wiggins looming as a dominant player at Kansas.
"Next year with Wiggins, hopefully he does well at Kansas," said Bennett. "I'm rooting for him. I'm pretty sure he'll get that No. 1 spot."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)