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Freed from an inconsistent role, Dragan Bender has new life with Suns

Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) blocks a shot by Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, center, as Suns center Alex Len (21) watches from the floor in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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It was a tough time supporting Phoenix Suns power forward Dragan Bender as a legitimate top-5 draft pick after his rookie season.

Thirty-five percent shooting. Three points per game. Two rebounds per game. Twenty-eight percent three-point shooting.

The Croatian had many fans antsy that his development was not going to come to fruition, so much so that the dreaded “bust” label was not used with much restriction despite him being the youngest player drafted.

Looking past the obvious fact that Bender and Marquese Chriss were two of the most raw players in their draft class, Bender’s inconsistent role on the Suns throughout Earl Watson’s tenure was overlooked.

Along with fellow rookie Tyler Ulis, Bender provided a spark for the Suns in their 2016-17 season opener against the Sacramento Kings, a 113-94 loss at home. When asked about Ulis and Bender, who were not in the original rotation in the first half, Watson said there would be changes.

There weren’t. Bender played 17 total minutes the next three games followed by three straight DNPs.

In an effort for him to see the floor, Watson played Bender at small forward for a portion of his minutes in his rookie year, a position he had never played.

Bender clearly looked uncomfortable, but he had to play somewhere, so there he was.

Finding playing time at least, Bender looked to be easing into his role, but then an ankle injury sidelined him for 28 games, a stretch of the season in which Bender would have got his footing under him along with the other younger players like Ulis and Alan Williams.

No worry, though, as Bender would start fresh in year two and that began at Las Vegas Summer League.

In Las Vegas, Bender was subsequently put in a secondary role. Outside of playing power forward, he would bring the ball up the court as the point guard.

That was quickly abandoned, and Bender then had a nice closing stretch to the summer.

He then went on to play for Croatia in EuroBasket, where, unsurprisingly at the age of 19, he hadn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff and had an even more difficult time finding a decent role. 

It felt like an ominous preview of what could come for Bender in not only his second NBA season but for the rest of his time as a Phoenix Sun as well.

Looking back at an inconsistent role

In his rookie year, Bender had gone through minutes at a perimeter position he had never played, an up-and-down roller coaster in regards to when he would play legitimate minutes and an experiment as a de facto point guard.

That’s not to say that Bender didn’t show his talents in the 574 minutes he played. His defensive smarts were there along with his overall versatility, but everything else in his game flowing would take time.

Bender’s skill-set is complex, but all he needed was a simple situation.

Give him at least 15 minutes a game and go from there. That’s what was on the wishlist. Soon, he would stop hesitating on shooting three-point shots. That would evolve into Bender shooting with confidence, which would then evolve into Bender making plays off the dribble.

That’s what has happened at the start of the 2017-18 season.

A strong start to his second year

With Jared Dudley recovering from a toe injury, and perhaps more importantly, new interim coach Jay Triano being more even-keeled with letting the better of Chriss and Bender play the most minutes in the moment, it looks to be the true beginning of Bender’s rise to a prominent player on the team.

In eight games, Bender has played 172 total minutes, nearly a third of how many he played last season and good for 21.5 minutes per game.

His averages are still not going to jump off the page. A line of 5.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per game and 36 percent shooting from the field is not substantial.

With that being said, his net rating of 2.8 is the second-best on the team behind Mike James and his defensive rating of 104.5 is at the top. The Suns, in fact, get 17.1 points worse when Bender is off the court, per NBA.com.

Now, Bender is not only making the right play defensively, but he’s doing so with more confidence. He’s already one of the best defenders on the team, and that’s why it’s not foolish to expect his minutes to only go up, not down.

With “extended minutes,” Bender is showing the impact he can have defensively. That comes from making plays as a perimeter defender to simple help as a rim protector.

Now that he’s more acclimated, Bender is using that extra pinch of aggression refs allow a player to have in order to contest and block shots more effectively.

Watch how bad Bender makes former Sun (and one of the best scorers of this generation) Joe Johnson miss on this turnaround jumper.

The frustration with Bender passing up three-point shots isn’t about how open he is; it’s the concrete fact that at his size, he can simply shoot over closeouts. He’s doing that now.

That opens up the most appetizing aspect of Bender’s offensive game: using his quickness at 7-foot-1 to attack the basket.

General manager Ryan McDonough is seeing what we’re seeing.

“We’re really happy with Dragan’s development and I think coach Triano has done a great job of putting him in positions to be effective and successful and help build up Dragan’s confidence,” McDonough said on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo show Wednesday.

The next step in that evolution is setting up his teammates once teams are more prepared for his rim attacks and he gets his feet under him more in a rotation. From there, he can show his passing ability that was the most promising part of his outlook as a prospect offensively.

That’s also not to mention Bender’s eventual growth that will come with age. He still hasn’t turned 20 years old yet, and with more time will come more strength, which will help Bender in every facet of his game.

“A lot of the time last year he was at a pretty significant strength disadvantage which is to be expected for an 18-year-old player,” McDonough said. “He’s come a long way physically. His shot is improving, he’s getting more arc under the ball and looked a lot more comfortable behind the three-point line and you’re starting to see that confidence unlock some of the rest of his game.”

That includes as a post scorer, defender and rebounder. Those are the boxes to check down the path of Bender being a center long-term, where his overall skills can be fully unleashed.

And that’s the beautiful thing about where Bender’s game is at in the present. Instead of worrying if he will ever play with confidence, it’s now about what he does with that confidence to expand his game that has incredible two-way upside.

If the 19-year-old’s trajectory stays consistent like his playing time this season, the Suns will have their secondary building block alongside Booker. That’s quite the 180 for a player who moved around last season like he needed the brightness turned down in the arena.

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