LAS VEGAS — When the Suns acquired the draft rights to power forward Marquese Chriss, the most important question was if he would be able to share the court with Dragan Bender, who is also a power forward.
Summer league head coach Nate Bjorkgren said in practice last week the top-10 picks would spend most of their time on the floor together, designating Chriss at three different positions while Bender would be more perimeter-oriented as a small or power forward.
The initial peek we’d get at that answer was the first two games of Las Vegas summer league, and in those, the potential shined through in unexpected ways.
Both highly skilled players, Bender and Chriss showed how effective they could be solely off energy plays. The Portland Trail Blazers in the first game Friday only scored four points in the first seven and a half minutes, and the versatility defensively had a good amount to do with that.
“I think it’s a good thing for us to play together,” Bender said after the Suns’ summer opener. “We both can switch on (the) perimeter, stay in front of the guards and on offense we can spread the floor and shoot the ball.”
Bender and Chriss were able to do just that and stop initial drive attempts, stifling the sets Portland coaches designed and putting the offense at a halt, a death sentence in summer league. That’s the enticing element of their partnership and we saw it right away.
The glass in particular is where Chriss made the most of an impact, especially in his second outing against the Celtics. He had 15 points, 14 rebounds and at least five different possessions when he took a hard bump to the floor.
“He has the effort, it’s just those details on positioning on defense, guarding the NBA sets, that’ll be the biggest difference for him, but he’ll pick that up quickly,” Bjorkgren said of Chriss last week.
Chriss specifically mentioned before summer league play began that he wanted to play with focus and discipline, something that’s challenging to do when he performs with so much intensity combined with rare athleticism. Succeeding so soon would be a tremendous improvement after he led the NCAA in fouls last season.
His tip-dunk Sunday showed what that mentality could do for him and his athleticism.
“There’s no hurt in that kid,” Bjorkgren said following Sunday’s game.
Bender, meanwhile, was used more on the perimeter both offensively and defensively.
The Boston game in particular is where his potential as a big small forward showed. He defended No. 3 overall selection Jaylen Brown fairly well considering the athleticism mismatch, and Brown finished 0-of-6 from the floor with just four trips to the foul line.
In both games, Bender defended ball-screen situations on one end while running off screens for jumpers and handling the ball for his own ball screens on the other end.
“I spent some time playing 3 in Maccabi (Tel Aviv) last year so it’s not going to be something new for me,” Bender said last week.
The position may be the same, but the role is different.
“(On) this team over here, I have more (of the) ball in my hands and I can create more so I love it,” Bender said Friday.
Bender also showed the ability to “grab and go,” getting the rebound and proceeding to start the fastbreak.
“His 7-foot-frame, he can really handle that ball,” Bjorkgren said last week. “He’s long, he can shoot the three, he’s got skills coming off ball screens so he’ll do some nice things on both ends of the floor.”
So far, the limitations for an 18-year-old prospect and a recently turned 19-year-old prospect adding an extremely unique dynamic was on display. But so was the intrigue.
Bender’s touch as a shooter was off in the first two games, but his form shooting the ball was encouraging and the cold streak shouldn’t last long. It’s something Devin Booker also dealt with in his first summer league last season.
The points scored off energy plays aside, Chriss’ main sources of offense came from planned moves instead of instinctive ones. We saw a pretty spin move Friday, but Chriss taking a jumper instead of pump-faking and getting blocked by Brown Sunday was one of the many examples of that lack of feel.
Defensively, Bender struggled with not fouling on contact at the rim even when he was in the right position, while Chriss’ lack of concentration resulted in a handful of open looks for the opposition. Neither big man is close to contributing as a rim protector, but that’s an NBA skill that takes most bigs a long time to master.
Even with the expected room to grow for two fairly raw prospects, Bender and Chriss showed they can change a game with not just skill level but their activity level as well. That’s a great sign for a duo that projected to struggle with rebounding and banging inside, something neither player shied away from Sunday.
“When I dive for a loose ball, get a block, things like that kinda get me going more than self things like getting a layup or getting a jump shot,” Chriss said.
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