Suns GM on Dragan Bender’s playing time: ‘I think we’ll find a way’
PHOENIX — Not many NBA teams draft a player in the top-five and then struggle to find said player consistent opportunities to play in their rookie year.
The Phoenix Suns were one of the exceptions to this last season, when, after selecting Dragan Bender fourth overall, they played him 15 minutes or more in 10 of their first 49 games before he had ankle surgery.
In some cases, teams may be prioritizing winning over the expected below average play from a rookie, but the Suns were not one of those teams last season.
With five bigs in the rotation before Bender, it was a challenge to find him time. Those five bigs return, and while injuries to Alan Williams (out six months) and Jared Dudley (status for opening night up in the air) do open space, Marquese Chriss, Alex Len and Tyson Chandler still stand in the way.
With that in mind, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station, Monday at the team’s media day that he sees consistent playing time in Bender’s future for year two.
“I think we’ll find a way,” McDonough said of finding Bender time in a busy frontcourt rotation. “He’s improved as a player. I think he’s physically a lot more ready to play today just by virtue of being 19 going on 20 instead of being 18. A year ago he looked like a high school kid and he was.”
The point McDonough makes, while sound, does reinforce the fact that Bender needs the extra attention for minutes more than anyone. He and Chriss were among the rawest and youngest players in their draft class. While Chriss moved into the starting lineup less than 10 games into the season, Bender couldn’t find any consistency in floor time.
A similar rotation, or any concrete plans for the matter, are not in place, though, according to the general manager.
He went on to say that the team’s rotation is very much an open competition, most notably in the frontcourt.
“One of the things we’ve told our guys since I’ve been here, especially since coach Watson has been our head coach, is that we don’t predetermine any of this,” McDonough said. “I think we have a good feeling that Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker will start and play a lot of minutes, but in the frontcourt, it’s more open.”
The buzzword surrounding Bender’s improvement has been “aggression,” and when asked the one thing he’s working on for his sophomore season, it came up again.
“Be more aggressive,” Bender said Monday. “Be more aggressive overall on both ends of the floor.”
Some of that aggression shined through this summer, whether it was Bender playing for the Croatian national team at EuroBasket or for the Suns’ Summer League team in Las Vegas.
That extra basketball, along with his rookie season ahead of him, will benefit his overall play.
“In the first year, everything is flying so fast for you and you have to be able to go with that, but as you get more experience, as you get more maturity, I think your game definitely slows for you,” Bender said.
As the case has been since he was being scouted, the elements of Bender’s game that make him special are best suited at a frontcourt position. While he can move very well for a 7-footer, Bender becomes ordinary as a small forward.
In order to find him time, Bender spent a good chunk of his minutes last season playing on the wing, but McDonough did not bring up the position when discussing if he believes Bender will play in the rotation.
“I think one way or another he will play,” McDonough said. “I just don’t know if it will be more at the four or the five.”
The aforementioned physical development is going to help their flexibility in getting both Bender and Chriss time at center.
“With the added weight, Marquese has the ability to play the five more,” McDonough said to the media Monday. “That was one of the things that we were cognizant of last year is when Maruqese and Dragan were 19 years old and two of the youngest players of the league … Putting them at the five for prolonged stretches — we worried about that. Just the physical toll and the wear and tear on the bodies.”
While it’s not time to pencil in a Chriss-Bender frontcourt for significant portions of the game, it shows another way for the team to be creative and get Bender more experience.
It’s tough to swallow, but year two for Bender isn’t about playing at a high level for his age and proving he’s a top-five pick. The first step is getting 15 minutes a game every night and learning from there. Then, it’s time for Bender to open up his game.
That’s what the 19-year-old can see in the future for himself in the NBA with Phoenix.
“Being able to get the ball and just to create for others, create for myself and I think from that point on, my game is just going to evolve on a different level,” Bender said.