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Appreciating the gravity created by Suns forward Dragan Bender

Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) drives against Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) of Germany during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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Suns forward Dragan Bender hasn’t improved in a lot of statistical categories spanning his first and second NBA seasons.

He’s scoring average per 36 minutes is the same. He’s still shooting the same 36 percent he did as a rookie and per 36 minutes has only gotten worse in rebounding and blocking shots. The second-year forward’s assist numbers have slightly ticked upward, and his turnovers and fouling have dropped.

His plus-minus rating isn’t a plus.

Whether or not you believe that him being 20 years old makes him a more promising prospect or not, the fact of the matter is the biggest attribute toward Bender’s development is coming through.

A prospect billed as a versatile defender, stretch forward and complementary offensive player, Bender’s upside in terms of his offensive game didn’t show in his first season.

As his comfort level has increased on both ends, it’s Bender’s improved jumper that has been the most promising development halfway through the 2017-18 season. Remember: This was a player who shot 36.6 percent from deep from the international three-point line and struggled with a flat shot and consistency on his release all of last season.

If there were any fears, it was that his shooting ability was oversold. Coupled with a limited offensive skillset and a lack of aggression, his rookie season might have increased concern about his offensive potential.

Bender shot 27.2 percent from the three-point line as a rookie while taking just more than six threes per 36 minutes. Still at that volume, he’s improved to become a 38-percent three-point shooter so far in 2017-18.

At his age, Bender could finish on a short-list of young players who have shot better than 38 percent from three while taking at least three per game (Full disclosure: I did not do this research).

More relieving compared to a year ago, he’s shooting 75 percent at the foul stripe compared to 36 percent as a rookie, a number that’s important considering many draft experts see the free throw stroke a telling sign of whether a player can become a good shooter.

When Devin Booker went down with a groin injury, interim coach Jay Triano found success with a lineup that featured Bender at power forward.

Surrounded by other shooters like Isaiah Canaan, Troy Daniels and Danuel House, Bender’s ability shined through.

Often times, that hasn’t meant he’s doing much.

Much, however, isn’t needed for the half-season to project as a promising sign for the Suns’ future.

Bender’s average time per offensive touch is 1.49 seconds, a low number similar to that of former Sun and current Rocket P.J. Tucker, who will either be wide open for a shot in Houston’s offense or continue to move the ball. Many other stretch power forwards such as Doug McDermott, Ryan Anderson and Mike Muscala appear in similar territory.

But unlike those snipers, Bender isn’t shooting it so much. In terms of points per touch, he’s also in the bottom-rung of the NBA. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it’s Booker, Warren and even Daniels ranking in the top-25 of points per touch.

As a non-ball-stopper, Bender seemingly would fit right in if those players remain part of Phoenix’s core.

As of now, Triano says Bender simply fits with ease into that second unit. He moves the ball, is gaining the confidence to take open shots and hitting them at a higher rate. If anything, he’s making defenses at least worry about him beyond the arc, creating gravity — defenders never stray far from him on or off the ball.

In Triano’s offense, the big men operating high atop the offense fits Bender’s passing abilities well.

Take this as an example: Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. briefly considers leaving Booker on a swing to cover Bender wide atop the arc. It’s just enough to get him off balance before Booker hits the jumper.

The wonder is whether Bender can become more than a standstill shooter or passer.

How rare it is that Bender gets to the rim off the bounce has limited his ceiling. While his still-slight frame could take contact on drives with age, it’s not hard to imagine the Suns get nervous when he puts the ball on the deck more than once.

Unsurprisingly, Bender’s offensive game continues to be limited exclusively to around the three-point arc.

He’s taken 155 threes this year to just 28 shots at the rim and 37 combined within 3 feet all the way to the three-point line, per Basketball-Reference.

But this blow-by of Carmelo Anthony on Sunday was evidence that Bender’s game off the dribble still has promise.

Sometimes, though, it’s not a problem if one dribble is all he can get, as the play below shows.

Bender pump-fakes, dribbles once and has the height to easily see Daniels in the corner and make the pass over traffic in the lane.

For a team currently operating without an experience play-making point guard, Bender’s ability to set up Booker and Warren has been huge. Even if the Suns acquire a point guard, the value in running the offense through a stretch forward is key.

In Bender’s career-high 20-point night against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, he played as an oversized center, drawing attention from the Thunder’s Patrick Patterson atop the three-point arc and completely opening up the paint for a cutting T.J. Warren. Not only that, Bender was able to execute the bounce pass for the backcutting Warren.

That’s all set up early in the game because of the threat of Bender’s shooting, even before he really got on a roll.

ROLE MOVING FORWARD

A year after the Suns showed uneasiness with Bender playing in the paint, allowing him to play solely as a power forward and, more recently, as a center indicates that he is becoming the type of player imagined when Phoenix drafted him fourth overall in 2016.

Bender’s quick feet may never be quick enough to play on the perimeter full-time, and his leaping ability inhibits his potential as a shot blocker, but as he gains strength, his length will be enough to become an above-average rim protector. On offense, the ability to absorb contact should lead him to gaining confidence to pump-fake, take a dribble and get an opposing defense rotating — or catch it asleep to score at the rim.

Bender’s improved shooting alone keeps the hope alive that he and Marquese Chriss can coexist, whether or not the Suns get a center of the future in the upcoming NBA Draft.

But most of all, what makes Bender so appealing is that, along with that shooting, he’s become a near perfect complementary offensive player as the Suns continue to build around the usage-heavy Booker and Warren.

As Triano says, Bender is just easy to play with.

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