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February has been and will be a big month for Suns’ Dragan Bender

Los Angeles Lakers forward Corey Brewer, left, reaches in on Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender, of Croatia, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

PHOENIX — Tumbling down the standings and on a seven-game losing streak, the Phoenix Suns hit a wall of obstacles before the All-Star break.

Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Tyson Chandler and Marquese Chriss got hurt. The defense, for whatever reasons, slipped. Phoenix traded for point guard Elfrid Payton, who despite playing well couldn’t push the Suns to a win.

Meanwhile, Dragan Bender’s best stretch of games as a pro has so far gone under the radar.

The challenge: Keep that stretch going long enough for people to notice.

Bender scored in double-figures in four of the seven games heading into the All-Star break, averaging 12.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 30 minutes per game. He shot 49 percent and 44 percent from three while his shot attempts nearly doubled in volume compared to this year’s average.

“A couple guys went down,” Bender said when asked about being more aggressive. “We kind of changed the roles a little bit. It happened that I got a little more minutes in both positions, the 4 and 5, got a little more shots. I think I used them well. It’s just a point where I have to be consistent with that.”

That comment, in a way, describes the challenge in asking Bender to do more.

A passer by nature, Bender has spent much of the year playing it safe, taking only wide-open looks and over-deferring to teammates.

That’s something Phoenix has tried to recalibrate in the last few weeks as he’s taken over a starting power forward role.

“We want him to be more aggressive,” Suns interim coach Jay Triano said. “He’s a play-maker, he wants to move the basketball and we want that, but he also has to be a factor out there. He’s one of our better scorers, one of our better shooters.”

The Suns’ lack of outside shooting from every starter aside from Booker makes it critical that Bender takes more attempts. Furthermore, it’s allowing Bender to create passing lanes at the moment he catches the ball as defenses rotate.

With his ability to see over the defense, opportunities open up when a defender is running at Bender rather than sinking in and eating up cutting lanes for wings T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

“People right now run me off the line, try to make me a play-maker,” he said. “That plays good for us. When I put the ball on the floor, we have a lot of shooters all over the court. It’s up for me to find them.”

A 7-footer shooting 39 percent overall this season might raise red flags, but Bender taking two-third of his shots beyond the three-point arc and making 38 percent of them has pushed his effective field goal percentage, which accounts for threes being worth a point more, to 51.7 percent. That’s a reasonable percentage that’s better than Devin Booker’s 50.2 (Booker, of course, makes it up and then some by getting to the foul stripe).

All season long, Bender has quietly been knocking down his three-point shot, something crucial to his development when regarding his unique skillset.

That and the weight he’s put on since his rookie season has him playing more in the stretch big role draft experts saw him taking on.

Along with his starting power forward duties, Bender is expected to see more time at the center spot with only a healthy Alex Len currently healthy enough to play in the middle.

“I think the big thing with (Bender) is his strength is getting better and it’s only going to keep getting better,” Triano said. “I thought last year he maybe had one (good) game out of every five. Now he has two good ones and then something slips, and we’ve talked to him about we want him to finish consistently. That’s how you develop into a great player.”


— There was not-so-positive news regarding center Tyson Chandler (neck) and Ulis (back). Neither practiced Thursday.

Chandler was expected to undergo an MRI Thursday after missing three of the last four games and not recovering out of the All-Star break. Ulis missed two games before he played just nine minutes in the pre-break finale against the Utah Jazz.

Chandler is listed as doubtful, while Ulis is questionable.

— During individual workouts on Thursday, point guard Brandon Knight (ACL) and center Alan Williams (meniscus) were working out in non-contract drills. Knight was working on set shots and mild-intensity floaters before he joined Williams to do easy-paced pick-and-roll work without defenders.

Williams, who was projected to be able to return with a handful of games left in the season, is meeting with trainers this week to decide how to approach a potential return.

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