It’s difficult for someone to know what you are truly capable of until you show them.
That’s something the Phoenix Suns’ No. 4 overall pick from the 2016 NBA Draft had to deal with in his rookie season.
Dragan Bender played 574 minutes in his first year in the NBA. His performance, rightfully so, in those minutes left many fans apprehensive given what he showed in that time.
The youngest player in his draft class, Bender was known for his “elite role player potential” as a versatile power forward. He could defend multiple positions on the inside and outside, make the right pass, hit an open shot and utilize the last two especially with his mobility as a 7-footer.
Many of those positives were tough for fans to process given how little he put on display in those minutes offensively. As any young player would, Bender was — and probably still will be for another year or two — focusing on defense and making open three-point shots.
The Croatian attempted only 161 field goals last season. For reference, Devin Booker attempted 40 in his 70-point game against the Boston Celtics.
The constant talk fresh off Bender’s draft profile of how good of a passer he was or how he had some creation skills was just talk. There weren’t examples of his talents there, even in 2016 Summer League.
In the last two games Bender played in Las Vegas this Summer League, however, he showed plenty of what made him a top-5 pick in the draft.
The appeal for Bender as a 7-footer on both ends of the court is that he’s agile enough to attack slower bigs off the dribble on offense and switch onto smaller perimeter players on defense.
The 19-year-old still needs to tighten up his handle, but like this year’s No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson, the reason to get excited about his attacks to the basket is because of his vision as a passer.
Despite it being a fairly challenging pass to make on the move, that’s the “easy play.”
Bender needs to be able to finish at the rim, more specifically, when the passing options aren’t there.
A play like this shows why the offense could really be something outside of just making the “easy play.”
There are dozens of dribble handoffs in an NBA game and with that, comes misdirection. The action is good, but Bender still needs to do more work at the rim. He could go up strong to try and draw a foul, but the wisest play is going under the basket to the other side for the sure two points. The problem is that’s very hard to do when you are 7-foot-1 moving at full speed. Once again, Bender makes this look pretty simple.
To move further up the scale of difficulty, Bender has another drive where the help defender arrives and he has to contort his body for the finish where he’s already getting a foul.
Like the prior finish, it’s another fake for a handoff and his length allows him to lay it in off the glass. Whether the handoff action is happening or not, these are basic ways to get Bender involved more and have the ball in his hands.
Where this gets fun is when Bender is playing with full confidence. That’s something that rarely looked to be the case last season, but will become more familiar next season assuming he has a regular rotation role.
On this play, Mike James is supposed to get the ball, but Bender sees a wide-open lane and knows he can make the pocket pass to James.
That’s all because of Bender making the read, knowing he can make that pass and having the audacity to call an audible on his own.
Watch Bender on this three-pointer.
The closeout from the defender is coming, but Bender is calm enough to check the three-point line and establish himself before shooting, because, once again, he’s a 7-footer who can simply just shoot over defenders even if they have good position.
The Suns — not only with Bender — have an infatuation with attacking mismatches in the post. Even with a height advantage, that doesn’t matter much when the player, whether that’s Bender or Tyson Chandler, isn’t an adept post scorer.
Bender should get touches when he’s within five feet of the basket in those situations, but when he’s farther out, he should play like himself, and watch how smooth that can be.
That’s clearly a move Bender has practiced a bit, but it doesn’t make it any less pretty.
Overall, this is no incredible revelation that Bender will now be a dynamic scorer and the next Kevin Durant. Overreacting to Summer League play is very dangerous.
With that in mind, it can be useful to show what a player is capable of.
Suns fans need not be reminded of the 2015 Summer League when a kid out of Kentucky was known for being a lights-out shooter, but the rest of his skill was relatively unknown. That kid went on to show that he could not only handle the ball but he could also create for himself and score at a very high level.
That’s not what we saw from Bender, but it’s also an aspect of his game that could become a major factor in his development over the next couple of years if he expands on the brief look we got in Las Vegas.
(Some clips via Cole Zwicker)
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