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Dragan Bender wants to put his game ‘on a different level’ for Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender, left, and Dallas Mavericks guard Nicolas Brussino chase down a loose ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 9, 2017, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Mavericks 124-111. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

PHOENIX – Eyebrows were raised recently when Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson mentioned Dragan Bender and point guard in the same sentence.

Welcome to positionless basketball, where Bender, a 7-foot-1 forward, is being groomed to be a playmaker.

“We want him to take the ball off the rim as a rebound and push it. We want to see him make plays. We want to figure out a system where he can run some point, just let him open up his game,” Watson told Doug and Wolf on 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station on June 28.

The experiment — and that’s all it is right now — is underway; first on the practice court at Talking Stick Resort Arena and then later this week in Las Vegas at NBA Summer League 2017.

Bender called the point guard role “definitely something new,” at least with the Suns.

Last season, Bender spent all of his time at the forward position, though he did show a knack for passing the ball with 23 assists.

The question now becomes, can Bender run an offense?

“I did quite a lot. Growing up, I did it quite a lot,” he said, referring to his time with Croatia’s junior national teams. “Just like this, playing with the ball, playing pick-and-roll and just being that point-forward guy; distributor on the offensive end, trying to pass the ball to open shooters on the floor and just trying to spread the court.”

Now the Suns aren’t asking Bender to bring the ball up the court every possession, and neither will he be asked to break a full-court press.

Eric Bledsoe and Tyler Ulis aren’t losing their jobs any time soon.

The Suns want to see Bender’s playmaking skills. Does he make the correct pass, the right pass in the flow of the offense? Is he able to dribble free of a defender? Can he run the pick-and-roll?

“He does have the potential to be that guy,” Suns Summer League head coach Marlon Garnett said Wednesday, not long after Bender had just thrown a length-of-the-court pass to Marquese Chriss for a dunk in the end-of-practice scrimmage.

It’s where the NBA is headed.

Bender pointed to Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors as today’s best example of a point-forward. But back in the day, as a young kid, it was a fellow Croatian who Bender looked to and patterned his game after.

“The guy that I was watching growing up was Toni Kukoc,” he said. “I was kind of growing up in the same club, growing up in the same city so he was the guy I was trying to steal some of those moves from him.”

The Suns, as does the rest of the NBA, value versatility.

Given his size and length, Bender is able to play all three frontcourt positions, and now the Suns want to see whether they might be able to add, on occasion, backcourt duties.

“We have a lot of athletic guys on the Summer League right now,” Bender said. “Whoever grabs the board on defense, he’s able to just bring the ball down the court and make the plays for us. That’s something that we think is going to be an advantage for us in the Summer League, and we’re trying to emphasize that.”

This summer is a big one for Bender.

With apologies to first-round draft pick Josh Jackson, most NBA eyes will be on Bender in Las Vegas. There is still a lot unknown about last year’s fourth overall pick, who was the youngest player in the league during his rookie season.

Bender appeared in just over half the games in 2016-17. He was limited in late-January by right ankle soreness that ultimately required surgery on Feb. 8, costing him a good chunk of time. Bender returned to action after a 28-game absence to play the Suns’ final five games of the season, twice scoring nine points.

Overall, Bender averaged 3.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.51 blocks and 13.3 minutes in 43 games.

“Last year, even though he was hurt a little bit, just being in the practices, being around some of the veteran guys that we did have, I think just gave him a little bit of comfortability, “ Garnett said. “Hopefully he continues to build on that brick and that foundation and continues just getting more experience and even better.”

Bender, who will turn 20 in November, said he was back in the gym not long after the season ended, and back in the weight room as well to add muscle to his slender frame. Listed at 225-pounds as a rookie, Bender is now tipping the scales at 240.

“Whatever I am at this point is pretty good but I’m trying to get better,” he said. “But on the other side I don’t want to lose agility, I don’t want to lose speed. With that said, I just want to try to put the weight on with not losing those stuff.”

The Suns have invested a lot in Bender. They’re quick to put his name right there alongside Devin Booker, Chriss, Ulis and T.J. Warren when discussing their young core.

“I’m trying to get better in every aspect of my game and just trying to put my game on a different level, being able to be versatile to be able to play in this level of the NBA today,” Bender said.

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