PHOENIX – The comparison is a good one, the Phoenix Suns believe — minus the off-the-court misadventures of course.
Asked before Wednesday’s preseason game against Utah where he saw 18-year-old Dragan Bender in five years, head coach Earl Watson didn’t hesitate.
“For me, Dragan is Lamar Odom,” he said.
In other words, according to Watson, Dragan has that unique skill-set to fill up the stat sheet, every column, like Odom once did at the turn of the century.
Over 14 seasons with four different teams, Odom nearly averaged a double-double (14.3 points and 9.0 rebounds) with 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks.
“I’m familiar with him, familiar with his game. It’s a big compliment,” Bender said after the Suns lost, 104-99, in front of 8,407 at Talking Stick Resort Arena. “Just being able to switch everything on defense, being able to stay on the perimeter in front of the guards. And then offense, create for the others, move the ball in the right direction and just hit the open shots.”
Bender struggled with his shot on Wednesday, missing all four of his 3-point attempts.
“It’s different,” he said, referring to the NBA three-point line. “It’s just a matter of time and just a matter of practice. Shots taken during the practice, I just got to keep working on those aspects of the shot and technique and everything and trying to improve.”
Overall, Bender went 3-of-7 for six points with four rebounds, one assist, one steal and two blocked shots in 26 minutes.
Defensively, he showed his versatility, guarding everyone from the 6-foot-3 George Hill to the 6-foot-7 Joe Johnson and 6-foot-10 Trey Lyles.
The Suns made Bender the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. He was the youngest player in the draft class and youngest player ever selected by the Suns.
Bender turns 19 next month.
Despite his youth, Bender already has four professional seasons in Europe under his belt, most recently spending last season with Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli Premier League and the Euroleague.
Playing time is all Bender lacks.
“Man, when I was 18, I was moving from Kansas to Los Angeles, trying to find my way through UCLA. I can’t imagine being 18, being in the NBA, being in another country and you’re defending Joe Johnson; sometimes Kawhi (Leonard),” said Watson, who noted Bender’s maturity and high character. “So for Dragan, the experience and the opportunity is the most amazing thing he can get at this age. We understand there’s going to be some challenges, but we also believe past those challenges on the horizon…once he arrives, he will arrive and it’s going to be very unique and powerful.”
— During a 27-12 run spanning the second and third quarters to give the Suns their first lead of the game, T.J. Warren scored 11 and Eric Bledsoe 10, the latter hitting a three-pointer for a 56-53 advantage. Warren finished with 15 points, Bledsoe 11.
— Some other notable Suns performances from the second preseason game: Marquese Chriss added 11 points and eight rebounds before fouling out in 24 minutes; Brandon Knight, once again, provided instant offense off the bench, scoring a team-best 17.
— The Suns played shorthanded as both center Tyson Chandler (personal reasons) and forward Jared Dudley (right knee tendonitis) missed the game. In their place, Watson started Alex Len and Chriss.
The Jazz were without a pair of starters, as well. Forward Derrick Favors (left knee soreness) and guard Rodney Hood (left hand sprain) did not play. Reserve guard Alec Burks also sat out the game.
— Three weeks removed from back surgery, P.J. Tucker has started doing some light shooting. The Suns announced a 6-8 week timetable for the four-time Majerle Hustle Award winner following a low back microdiscectomy procedure on Sept. 15.
“He’s ahead of schedule,” Watson said. “But we want to be cautious with him and make sure he stays on track and being ahead of schedule doesn’t always mean get on the court soon. That means he’s healing quickly, and we want to make sure everything else is OK as far as his body function.”
— A focal point of training camp, defense continues to be preached by Watson here in the preseason.
“For our team, we understand that to take pride in defense is the most selfless act you can do in basketball because you’re releasing so much energy without even getting acknowledged for scoring points,” he said. “We also understand that defense for us is key because of our lack of experience throughout our roster. So, the quicker we can get the game to move with deflections, steals, blocks and stops, the better chance we have attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line.”