PHOENIX — He was just 18 and had played his entire career in Europe before the Phoenix Suns selected him No. 4 overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. Background is an important piece of the story when analyzing Dragan Bender’s development.
The power forward spent time playing in Israel and Croatia, which is where he made his professional debut at 15 with the Croatian team KK Split. Transitioning from Europe to the NBA has its challenges, but Bender said getting acclimated to the NBA just comes with practice and repetition.
“Different rules, obviously different game, different players, different speed, but you get used to it,” said Bender, whose Suns play in Toronto tonight. “As much as you can put work in, you get used to it pretty quickly.”
Last season, Bender only played in 43 games after missing time because of an ankle injury. In those 43 games, he averaged 3.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game.
Twenty-five games into this season, Bender has played in every one, averaging 5.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and one assist. He has also improved his shooting percentages from the floor, the free throw line and the three-point line.
He had one of his best runs during a five-game stretch in mid-November when he scored in double digits three times, including a career-high 15 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bender said the advice coaches give him is simple: “Just play.”
“I’m still developing,” Bender said. “Every day work hard and just play our game.”
Suns interim coach Jay Triano said he can see growth in Bender’s game as the season has progressed.
“He’s more comfortable, he’s more confident and stronger,” Triano said. “And I think all three of those things have showed why he’s been a better player.”
Suns veterans have also helped Bender in his and the team’s development.
“(Tyson Chandler’s) a great veteran for everybody on our team, especially because we’re so young,” Bender said. “Everybody on our team is so young. It’s so valuable to have (Jared Dudley) and Tyson, obviously. Just having them around to help us throughout this process.”
Basketball is something that continually evolves, whether it be style of play, players’ abilities, or regulations of the game. Bender said he knows this, and it is something that he needs to take into consideration when working on improving his game.
When asked what specifically he needs to address, Bender said, “Pretty much everything.”
“Trying to put everything at a higher level,” Bender said. “Trying to be a better player each and every day. As the game evolves, everybody has to evolve. Players start shooting more threes, and teams (are) trying to play fast basketball, the run-and-gun, and everybody has to adjust to that.”
Whether the high expectations and pressures of being a top draft pick have affected him, Bender said he does not worry about that.
“I don’t have pressure,” Bender said. “I just come out and play my game, like I said, I try to win games. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”