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Bender’s play for Croatia shows constraints of limited role with Suns

Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) drives against Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles in the second quarter during an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
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Being a role player in any sport is not easy. In fact, it’s quite difficult.

In plenty of basketball situations, one could spend hours out of live play, leaving most of their time to sitting on the bench. Their only way of staying loose could be warm-ups before the game and at halftime.

If a player is lucky enough to get at least 15 minutes of playing time, they’ve got a smaller amount of time to do their job. It’s a narrow, short timeline, if you will (avoids tomatoes being thrown at him).

They have far less responsibility, so their job is more about not making mistakes than making the big play.

Some players aren’t suited for spot minutes but end up there because of circumstance.

This adjustment is something Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender is learning to deal with after his rookie season. With FIBA’s EuroBasket competition underway, Bender was looking at playing for Croatia as a breath of fresh air before NBA training camp.

Instead, it’s been more of fighting through problems with his role on the team combined with continuing his development as a professional.

In four games for Croatia, Bender is averaging 13.6 minutes per game, posting 3.5 points, 0.5 rebounds and one block a game.

Croatia boasts a lineup with two ball-dominant players: Philadelphia 76ers forward Dario Saric and Indiana Pacers wing Bojan Bogdanovic. Bender has hardly played without at least one of them on the court.

With Saric and Bogdanovic surrounded by a mostly older, veteran group, there aren’t many touches to go around for Bender on offense. Honestly, there aren’t any.

Bender’s role for Croatia in the first couple of games against Hungary, Romania and Montenegro was, essentially, to not do anything wrong. He’s not even out there to make a difference. It’s more about hitting open shots and covering his responsibilities defensively.

What this creates is that aforementioned tight window. Bender can’t have a four-to-five sequence run of a couple buckets and other solid plays because he’s not touching the ball.

That makes errors like this hurt more.

That was Bender’s first possession of the game against Romania on Saturday. Note the time of the game. Bender didn’t play for over 13 minutes of game time, which, including introductions and breaks, can be well over a half-hour on the bench. Still, he can’t make mistakes like this.

When Saric is on the bench and Bender is more involved in the action around the ball, this can’t happen.

When Bender has one or two clumsy plays like the previous examples, takes three open jumpers and makes one, a defensive sequence like this won’t make up for it.

That’s the reality of a role in which he likely won’t see over 20 minutes a game.

He can succeed, like he did against Montenegro, playing only eight minutes but making a few good plays.

Even when playing well, he’s clearly battling for playing time with a coach who prefers other players to him. That sentence could ring true for his time in Phoenix as well.

When he does get bonafide opportunities, though, and a more defined role, he, unsurprisingly, plays better. Going back to summer league in July, Bender improved over the course of the week, getting more and more confident.

That happened in his fourth game against Spain, when he started the game and played 19 minutes against the Gasol and Hernangomez brothers, all of whom are NBA players.

While his box score was more of the same, scoring five points and grabbing one rebound, his impact on the game was far superior to anything else he had done in the tournament.

Even with his positive play, Bender didn’t start the second half and only played six minutes after a very good first half performance.

Bender’s time playing for the Croatians is a reminder of what he could be facing next season in Phoenix.

He is well outside one of the top-five offensive options for the Suns, and while head coach Earl Watson has done a very good job of getting him more involved in the offense than Croatia has, Bender could have plenty of games like he did this past week.

Whether it’s an “invisible” performance or inconsistent rotation spells, games like he had in the beginning of the tournament can sink a player if there are mistakes swirled into those 10-15 minutes of nothingness. Also, while Bender is a weak rebounder, he simply cannot grab only two rebounds in four games as a big.

As we saw in Vegas and in Bender’s rookie year, this is likely more to do with his situation on his national team than him as a player, but the issue stands in that aside from his overall development, this is the next step for his growth as a player.

Make corner threes, do your job on defense and the glass, and then we can start implementing you into the offense and trusting you with the ball in your hands.

That’s what season two will be about for Bender in the NBA, and with the Suns looking to be one of the worst teams in the league, he will have far more freedom than he has for Croatia. That competitive basketball this summer, though, and failing to consistently impact the game is a troubling factor in Bender’s overall outlook as a prospect that shouldn’t be ignored.

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