Suns’ win over Kings gives sneak peek of Bender-Chriss starting frontcourt
LAS VEGAS — Versatility is going to be a major theme for the Phoenix Suns as they progress through their rebuild.
They have options inside and outside on both ends of the court and that starts with their top-10 picks from 2016 in power forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.
Because of Alan Williams playing in last year’s Summer League, Friday’s opener against the Sacramento Kings was the first look at the two as a starting frontcourt.
The two had underwhelming stat lines, but the team came out with a 89-85 win.
Chriss had 19 points on 5-of-17 shooting with eight turnovers and nine fouls, while Bender finished with 11 points, shooting 4-for-13 with seven fouls.
With that being said, the overall play on the court was very encouraging, as well as the added muscle both look to have added in the offseason.
The most notable instance of their flexibility was with Bender at the end of the first quarter.
When starting point guard Mike James checked out of the game, instead of a point guard coming in for him, shooting guard Davon Reed checked in first off the bench, leading to power forward Dragan Bender bringing the ball up.
The look of Bender running the offense appeared to be more about eventually getting him the ball to distribute out of the post instead of making plays off the dribble.
Summer league head coach and team assistant coach Marlon Garnett said it wasn’t the best time to use it given the matchup.
“We want to try to season that in spots and spurts, but this was probably not the best game to try it,” Garnett said.
“Obviously, when he takes it off the glass we love for him to push it but getting some minutes, stealing some minutes, with him just actually bringing it up and trying to get in the offense, I think that will expand his game when he’s touching the ball and feeling the ball.”
The inside-outside combination for Bender and Chriss was put to use the most on the perimeter offensively and the interior defensively.
On offense, Bender and Chriss combined to shoot 3-of-12 from three. After a Bender miss later led to another Chriss miss, Bender was clapping at half-court, encouraging Chriss to keep shooting.
“Me and Dragan coming in the same year with Tyler (Ulis) I think we built a relationship,” Chriss said after the game.
“I know he’s a hell of a player, he’s a hell of a shooter, and we just try and encourage each other because we know what we’re capable of doing.”
As Arizona Sports’ Kevin Zimmerman noted, it’s what will very likely swing the success of the young core in the next couple of years.
Not hesitating and playing confident is the X-factor for Bender, and while he finished with poor shooting numbers, every attempt he had was taken with belief and no second-guessing. At Summer League, that’s the far more important sign than how his box score looked.
Perhaps the most impressive performance by Chriss and Bender was inside on defense.
Kings bigs Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere have the skills on the post to give them both problems. Both Suns’ first-round picks held their own, though, most notably Bender on Labissiere. The former Kentucky big didn’t score on Bender in the first half after four different plays were run that were designed to attack Bender with isolation looks for Labissiere.
While Chriss and Bender finished the first half a combined 6-of-20, Papagiannis and Labissiere were 2-of-7, with a handful of possessions stalling when they couldn’t get anywhere on the interior and chose to kick the ball out. As a duo, the Sacramento big men had 10 points combined in the game while Chriss and Bender combined for 30.
The frontcourt, along with Josh Jackson, Derrick Jones Jr., Reed and James, combined for a terrific game of defensive basketball, working relentlessly all game and not managing a rebounding disadvantage despite not starting a center.
Both had key moments in the game individually and together.
As expected, Chriss played with his edge.
He was involved in a scuffle with Papagiannis and was going at the Kings’ backup bigs with such intensity that he seemed insulted they were sharing the court with him. Despite the way he flies through the air, that toughness is what’s becoming the signature aspect of his game.
For Bender, he showed what he’s all about during a sequence with under five minutes remaining in the game.
No. 5 overall pick De’Aaron Fox got the switch with Bender defending him. Fox’s elite attribute as a point guard prospect is his quickness, but Bender stuck with him after several hesitation moves and contested his shot well. On the next possession, Bender nailed an open three to extend the Suns’ lead.
As a two-man unit, the team itself will continue to experiment and find ways to involve them together both in Las Vegas for the next week and throughout their careers in Phoenix.
On the opening play of the second half, Bender held the ball at the top of the key for some motion offense to run before Chriss was eventually open at the free-throw line. Bender made the pass and Chriss rose into a floater that gave the team their first points of the second half.
It might have looked like a normal play to some, but it’s just one of the many ways the two will separate themselves as a pair playing together in the Valley for years to come.