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Watson: Finding time for Bender ‘to take steps forward’ is key

Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35), of Croatia, and Sacramento Kings guard Ty Lawson (10) battle for the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

LISTEN: Earl Watson, Suns head coach

The Phoenix Suns have lost three games in a row after falling in Minnesota Monday night and now own the second-worst record in the Western Conference at 8-20, finding themselves a single-game ahead of the 7-21 Dallas Mavericks.

A team that is building for the future has a wide range of youth with seven players owning less than three years of experience in the NBA. But Phoenix also has a group of older veterans — four of their players are already above the age of 30.

So how hard is it to balance the youth with the veterans in more of a rebuilding season?

“For us, what I do not want to happen is I never want Dragan Bender to consistently know what it feels like to not play. That can’t happen,” Suns head coach Earl Watson told Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Tuesday. “So we also understand the future and the future is our young guys have to take steps in growing and maturing and getting more confident on the court. Our veterans, to me, have every right in the beginning of the season to earn minutes, to keep minutes and to continue to be a part of it.”

Through the first 28 games of the season, the four players over 30 are getting 22.9 minutes per game, while the seven players who are rookies, second- or third-year players, average 19.2 minutes per contest.

The Suns’ fourth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Bender has averaged 11.3 minutes this season. He has recorded 2.7 points and 1.5 rebounds per game.

“For us, we understand that our veterans are who they are. They’re going to give you their maximum effort,” Watson said. “When is the opportunity for our young guys to continue to grow throughout the season? Navigating the season is most important. Dragan Bender to me is key for us, we have to find time for him to take steps forward.”

How to get them to take those steps forward is where coaches differ. Watson mentioned that in Seattle the philosophy with the Sonics was to play their young guys like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green all of the time, and keeping them in over the veterans.

But in Utah, Jerry Sloan barely played Gordon Hayward his rookie year, making him earn his minutes and letting him learn under the veterans before he would get consistent time on the court.

Marquese Chriss, the Suns’ eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, has been getting his chance to play crucial game-ending minutes, and has even started in 21 of the Suns’ 28 games. As for Bender, only four Suns players have played less minutes than him.

Based off Watson’s comments, it seems Bender could earn an uptick in minutes soon.

“To me just being a former player, that mindset from the first three years — I say this over and over, I’m not sure how many people understand how true this is — your first three years define who you are as a player in this league,” Watson said. “So if you didn’t have [a] breakout in the first two, your third year is the most important.

“So if we know our young guys are the future, we can’t say the future is next year. Our future is now with our veterans, so we have to make sure our future in being now with the young players, we have to find a way to incorporate them to get that confidence, to gain that momentum, to get that experience if that is what’s going to help us turn the corner.”

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