Keith Benson has been one of the most consistently dominant centers in the league this season, a level of play in which he believes is not just an anomaly. A season ago, Benson averaged 13.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while playing just 23 minutes per contest.
Despite his efficiency last season, Benson was frequently relegated to a bench role behind NBA D-League MVP Jarnell Stokes. Benson averaged 17.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in 23 starts last season for the Skyforce. He played in 49 total games during the Skyforce’s historic 40-10 win regular season, scoring in double figures 37 times. Benson never complained about not getting enough minutes. Instead, he embraced his role in order to help the team, something many players on last year’s roster had to do.
This season, the soft-spoken Benson is not-so-quietly averaging career-best numbers with 20.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game in over 33 minutes per contest. He leads the league with 17 double-doubles through 26 games on the season after tallying just 11 a year ago.
We caught up with Benson at practice this week to reminisce on what it meant to him to be a part of a record-breaking, championship-winning team a season ago, as well as how he’s stepped into a larger leadership role in guiding this year’s team to the best record in the league so far this season.
Going back to last season, describe your experience playing with that team, the success you had, and what winning the championship meant to you.
It was fun last year setting the win record. We had a really deep team from top to bottom, and it’s always a good feeling to win a championship. It was one of the best runs we’ve ever had, and it was a good way to end the season. Not many teams get to end their season with a win, so we went out on a good note.
You were one of the best big man in the league a year ago, but because of our roster, you ended up coming off the bench for much of the second half of the season. Describe what that was like, and how you were able to modify your role with the team’s best interests in mind.
At times it was frustrating because I knew what types of things I could have done with more minutes and everything, but it was just the situation we were in. It ended up having to be like that. It ended up making us a really good team to have someone like me coming off the bench. The other team had to deal with two talented big men all the time, so it made us better.
This season you’re off to a tremendous start, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks. Is that primarily due to the fact that you’re receiving more minutes, or how has your game grown in the last year or two that has led you to play at this level?
I did a lot of work on my body this summer, and I think it’s just more experience and being more comfortable. More minutes obviously plays into it too. I’ve just been focusing on the main things: rebounds and blocks. I think the points will always come, so I’ve just been trying to focus on that. Getting double-doubles and things like that, and trying to be consistent so they know I can do it every night.
With our style of play, a lot of times the first thing people think of is how fast we play, and how many threes we attempt per game. How are you able to be so consistent, right at that 20-point, 11-rebound mark, with the pace at which we play?
I just try to focus on what I’m doing. Whichever one of our guards is having a big night, I just try and stay on the rebounds and stuff and try and get some points off the glass if I’m not getting the ball. We play a lot of pick and roll, to that means the other team has to focus on me rolling to the basket a lot, and that opens things up for other people. My teammates usually get me on the passes. Pocket passes, and stuff like that, so I’m able to get going that way.
Describe the team we have this season, and what it’s been like to step into more of a leadership role than you’ve been in in years past. You’ve got a little bit more experience than some of your teammates, just describe how that’s gone.
Well, I’m familiar with Briante and Bubu and Jabril, and some of the guys that were in training camp. We’re all pretty comfortable with each other. The ones who are younger, we just try to take it game-by-game, and try to have them be more consistent. We try to stay together, not “wow” anyone and just try to play within ourselves, and not get down on each other when bad things happen.
This year’s coaching staff has a drastically different style than the coaching staff from a season ago. How do you think our current coaching staff has been able to help you grow as a player, as well as help the team play well together?
They focus on what every person needs. The guys who need more, or who need less. They’re always working with guys and showing game film to guys and things like that, so I think they’ve done a good job working with each person. They do everything they can do to make us better as a group.