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Dragan Bender limits mistakes, has solid Summer Suns showing in Vegas

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

LAS VEGAS — The Phoenix Suns aren’t really asking much out of third-year power forward Dragan Bender this year.

He was, after all, a No. 4 overall pick two years ago, but the Suns just want Bender to play defense, hit threes and limit his mistakes.

To say the least, Bender was not doing that two games into his third NBA Summer League. He had eight turnovers and five points entering Monday’s game against the Orlando Magic. Bender credited that to running through the plays and playing passively.

For a third-year player, especially, Bender’s mistakes, brain farts and goof-ups are unacceptable given how little he touches the ball. That’s been the problem far more than him averaging 5.4 points per game in his short career.

Still, it’s very easy to forget Bender doesn’t turn 21 until mid-November. Mikal Bridges, the 10th selection in this year’s draft, is over eight months older than Bender.

That youth makes it no surprise that when you ask any player, coach or front office member about Bender, they always say it’s about him playing with confidence. The skill, talent and know-how on the floor is there.

On Monday, Bender showed why he’s so valuable when he does that in a 71-53 win over the Magic.

Bender finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and zero turnovers.

“Wasn’t so much [being] down and hard on myself … It’s just about myself being more aggressive and telling myself to be more aggressive,” Bender said of his struggles, mentioning his tendency to run through plays without being decisive.

It’s always not about the stats with Bender, as head coach Igor Kokoskov said after the game.

“There’s so many other ways that he can help us,” he said.

When Bender can make three defensive plays in one possession like this, that’s where he shines.

That’s a terrific pick-and-roll switch, rim contest and second contest for a block all within six seconds.

When Bender is playing slower and floating through plays like he said, he will stay on the perimeter and not make smart cuts like this one.

With that being said, Bender has to make his open shots and he was 3-for-6 from three-point range, an improvement from the first two games.

“He has to be a hot guy,” Kokoskov said of Bender’s shooting.”He’s got to keep watering plants. That’s shooting every day and just working shots and being active. When he has a game that he doesn’t make shots — how can he help a team win the game?”

We aren’t in the range of definites yet, but Bender is very likely not going to live up to the value of a top-5 pick. With the roster Phoenix has constructed, that’s perfectly fine.

Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson all provide more than enough scoring. They don’t need more offense around them. Instead, they need players like Bender who can space the floor, make the right reads and provide a strong defensive presence.

Whether or not Bender can be competent enough in year three to do that remains to be seen. Monday, however, was at least a brief glimpse that he has it in him heading into next season.

FREE THROWS

— Deandre Ayton didn’t dominate but still had 17 points and 13 rebounds, a testament to how productive he can be. He matched up with No. 5 overall pick and fellow big man Mohamed Bamba. It was Ayton’s first win over Bamba in the five times they had played each other.

“4-1 now,” Ayton said of Bamba mentioning an undefeated record before the game.

— Shaquille Harrison was the difference-maker for the Suns. His defense was all over the place, as he racked up five steals to go along with 11 points and six rebounds.

Kokoskov called Harrison’s work rate on defense “a talent” and said the defense he brings means “a lot” to the team.

“He was really just taking the ball from those guys,” Ayton said of Harrison.

— Josh Jackson couldn’t get his jumper to go down in the first two games, shooting 7-of-28 from the field. On Monday, he was much more adamant about getting to the rim but had issues forcing it. He was 3-of-13 with five turnovers against Orlando.

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