Suns coach Kokoskov hoping to ‘challenge’ Bender in Summer League
PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns coaches started firing passes to the corner. Behind the arc stood forward Dragan Bender, who kept rattling off shots following practice Thursday.
The spot is familiar. The corner has almost become Bender’s mainstay in his two NBA seasons. But with no other players on the court, the 7-foot-1, 235-pound native of Croatia was forced to execute something he frequently passed up on last season:
“I think Dragan, one of his problems was he was just a little timid sometimes,” Suns second-year forward Josh Jackson said of Bender. “He’s a great shooter but we’ve got to tell him to shoot the ball sometimes.”
On Thursday, Bender kept firing without hesitation. “Four (of) eight,” a Suns’ coach shouted. Bender’s feet moved back to the same spot after each shot. “Five, nine,” he yelled after the player sunk another shot.
The media stood just feet to his left followed the ball like robots, moving their heads like they were watching a tennis match. “Six, 10.” Bender walked to the free throw line after connecting on a respectable 60 percent from the short corner.
“Whoever tells you experience doesn’t matter is lying,” Jackson said.
After two years, many suggest that is still the case.
Instead of praise for the youngster, new Suns coach Igor Kokoskov, who said he sees Bender as a power forward who will “play more on the perimeter,” talked about his potential — harping on the things he hopes Bender will improve.
“I want our guys like Bender to develop and to do everything,” Kokoskov said. “He is a versatile defender who can always get better but I want him to do all the stuff better — be a better shooter, playmaker for the guys, better rebounder.
“We’re going to challenge him. I think it’s good for him. He’s a very talented young player and we need him more. That’s why he’s playing Summer League, to add even more experience to his game.”
As the head coach of Slovenia, Kokoskov coached a few friendly games against Bender’s Croatian team.
When he joined Phoenix, his early impression of Bender was not solely based upon seeing the 20-year old while working as a Utah Jazz assistant coach. He was able to see Bender surrounded by different pieces in a European offense similar to his own.
“I know Dragan very well,” Kokoskov said. “When you play against someone, you study your enemy, and now he is part of our team. So I’m very familiar with his game, his weaknesses, his strengths. In every aspect of the game he can get better, that’s why he’s here.”
But Bender isn’t practicing for his third Suns Summer League team solely because the organization wants to see him with the team’s star-studded rookies, including No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges.
After missing 39 games with an ankle injury his rookie season, Bender played a full season last year. His health, though, didn’t translate to jaw-dropping results. He put up 6.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a game while shooting almost 37 percent from beyond the arc.
Some look at Bender’s size and wonder what he’s doing so far from the basket. Although the forward said he wants to be more aggressive, his coach doesn’t want him to abandon shooting triples.
“Based on analytics, we talk about the importance of the three-point line,” Kokoskov said. “So we are searching for and paying guys who can make a three-pointer. So I would never say too much of the three-point shooting. Never enough.”
Bender said he’s “just trying to figure myself out.” This summer he’s gained muscle. He’s trying to disprove the timid label many have tagged him with, working to play more aggressive on both ends of the floor.
Kokoskov has helped with that, though, trying to pull Bender away from his old habits during summer practices.
“Just getting me playing with the ball more,” Bender said about what Kokoskov does to get him out of his comfort zone. “Trying to create for the others. Trying to find the shooters on the wing, just putting me in a system where I’m going to be kind of a playmaker who will find shooters on the wing and trying to drive more.”
The Suns want to see progress from the forward in Las Vegas. He wants the same. But on the Suns’ Summer League team, he was given the unofficial task of becoming a leader.
In an odd turn of a events, Bender is a veteran at summer practices. The 20-year old has played more NBA games than anyone on the roster and said he just tries to talk to his teammates, many of whom are experiencing Summer League for the first time.
Rookie George King, who the Suns drafted 59th overall out of Colorado, has taken notice.
“He’s definitely a guy that’s been around the block,” King said of Bender. “In this group, he’s a veteran guy and he’s definitely taken guys under his wing and shown us the ropes.
“I noticed that when we do drills, he’s always the first guy to go. He’ll demonstrate and it’s a domino effect after that.”
In an NBA landscape where fans are ready to declare someone a Hall of Famer or a bust after one game, Bender’s progress frustrates some. His third Summer League appearance isn’t looked at in a positive light but perhaps it just shows slow development from someone who was categorized as a “project.”
But some projects just need the right builder, and Kokoskov may just have the pieces to keep Bender in the Suns’ long-term future.
“Just having Igor, I’ll say this: he pushes every player,” Jackson said. “He’s a really smart guy. You can hear it when he talks.”
Added Bender: “He’s be talking to each one of us trying to figure out the best roles for our young players and trying to run the floor together.”