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Dragan Bender flashes long-term potential during brief stint at center

Portland Trail Blazers forward Maurice Harkless goes to the basket as Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

PHOENIX — When you’re a rookie in the NBA and not in a direct spot to get playing time, it can be a challenging season.

The Phoenix Suns’ No. 4 overall pick Dragan Bender has learned that in a hurry to start his career. After looking extremely uncomfortable all preseason, Bender scored 10 points in 12 minutes of the Suns’ 113-94 loss to the Sacramento Kings on opening night and head coach Earl Watson seemed to infer that both Bender and Ulis had earned spots in the second unit.

In the following six games, though, Bender played 17 combined minutes, including three straight DNP’s.

As a prospect, Bender was known for his positional versatility and potential as a stretch big, but a lack of strength at 18 years old restricts the flexibility for him playing power forward or center in his rookie season. It’s safe to assume that’s one reason why he’s been playing out of position as a small forward.

Phoenix having two full-time centers, Jared Dudley as a stretch-four and rookie Marquese Chriss, who is much more suited for early playing time and the physicality inside, made it a daunting task for Bender to get minutes at the more preferred positions.

Prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons, Watson said it’s not a matter of sitting the rookies until they are ready.

“You just gotta continue to get (Bender) on the court,” Watson said. “We want our young players to play. Opportunities have to be there, it has to be created, but we want our young players to play and continue to grow.”

That’s already shown through Watson’s actions, as Chriss replaced Dudley in the starting lineup the night before in Portland.

Also, under rather unfortunate circumstances, the passing of Tyson Chandler’s mother put Alex Len in the starting lineup against the Trail Blazers. Bender, in a positive sign toward Watson’s feelings on his potential as a big man, played a majority of the backup center minutes, including crunch time.

The benefits Bender can have on both sides of the court were apparent from the get-go despite seeing the first significant playing time of his career Tuesday. He scored 10 points in 23 minutes and added on two rebounds, an assist and a block in Phoenix’s 124-121 loss to Portland.

Offensively, Bender showed three different ways he can impact the game in a mismatch. Portland’s centers are actually quicker than the norm, but Bender could still take advantage.

Ed Davis is used to pressuring the ball on the perimeter, but not against a guy who can A) dribble B) get by him and C) finish. Mason Plumlee and Mo Harkless — pinching for a quick second before making the right play and recovering back to Dudley, the best shooter on the team — have to live with Bender shooting an open make. Lastly, a clever action by Watson has Dudley making a cut that is traditionally covered by the help (Davis), leaving Bender with way too much space for an open make.

All three of those possessions are entirely different and are doable for Bender in his rookie season despite his offense being the least developed of the two sides of the court.

Speaking of that other side of the court, Portland saw Bender out there in the closing minutes of a close game and did what any team would by attacking the rookie. Even Watson admitted he would have done the same thing.

“They (had) never seen Dragan so they had to try him,” Watson said. “He’s 18. I would have tried him too to be honest with you and put him in the pick-and-roll. He handled himself very well. He’s fearless.”

Bender was just that, playing composed pick-and-roll defense on the road in a late one-possession game.

In that first clip, Lillard is mindful of the defender being inexperienced and tries to get a cheap three free throws off the bump. Bender keeps up with him so well that the bump isn’t severe enough to warrant a foul and he even blocks the shot attempt.

Not every 18-year-old, however, can be like Devin Booker in their rookie season. Bender had a rough go of it Wednesday night against the Pistons, playing only eight minutes, missing all four of his shots and committing four fouls. He played hard, was generally fine on defense and didn’t allow any offensive rebounds, but it’s clearly going to be a process for him to mature as a player.

It’s a brief stint, but Bender has given Suns fans what they’ve wanted for: Proof he was worthy of a top-five pick after starting the season outside of the rotation. His two-way versatility and what he offers on both ends is exactly what Phoenix needs right now, and it’s up to Watson to find the opportunities he mentioned. We will get our first indication of how he handles that on Saturday, when Chandler assumedly returns to the lineup and puts the Suns back at full strength.

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