Dragan Bender’s battle with aggression continues in second year for Suns

Jan 31, 2018, 2:07 PM | Updated: 6:36 pm
Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender, left, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets forward Trey Lyl...
Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender, left, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets forward Trey Lyles defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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PHOENIX — Ask anyone in the Phoenix Suns organization about what the key is for second-year power forward Dragan Bender and they all use the same word: aggression.

Bender is not necessarily someone who is afraid to mix it up and be physical, as shown by how he can defend and contest shots at the rim, but the troubling part is the offensive end.

In three of the four last games, Bender has played at least 18 minutes and has scored zero points. Over the course of those 61 total minutes, he’s taken eight shots.

“I think he’s showed signs where he’s been aggressive and confident, that’s kind of where we want to get back,” interim coach Jay Triano said Wednesday.

“He’s had a couple games where he hasn’t been.”

The questions for Bender coming out of the draft were always about his offense. Would he be a consistent shooter? Would he be able to attack off the dribble? Can he create his own offense?

The good news is the shooting has been there. He checks in at 37 percent from deep prior to Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks.

The consistency, obviously, hasn’t been there for the rest of his offensive game.

Of his 96 made field goals this year, 70 percent of them (67 total) have been 3-pointers, a very high number.

Some of this does have to with Bender’s role. His game is not where it needs to be in order to be seen as more of an offensive focal point and the Suns desperately need spacing. Bender, as one of the team’s few good shooters, serves that role.

As a smart player and a good passer, leaving him on the perimeter to shoot or pass quickly before the defense rotates back isn’t the worst idea.

Per Cleaning the Glass, 24 percent of his shots come on corner threes, one of the highest numbers in the league.

Triano claimed that Bender putting up more shots is a little bit on him and the Suns consistently using different lineups throughout the season could be playing a role as well.

Trying to find more ways for Bender to get involved is something Triano wants to do and he has a few things in mind to do that.

But, that’s being kind to the Croatian, who simply has to be more, well, aggressive.

Playing 22.4 minutes a game this year, Bender has taken double-digit shots in only two games this season. In a not so shocking development, Bender scored 14 and 17 points in those two games.

When he’s feeling it, he will be aggressive, and he has shown signs of doing more than just shooting jumpers on that end.

Early in the season, he had 10 points in Brooklyn, and while that point total isn’t impressive, the two buckets he had off the dribble were a glimmer of hope that scoring off more than 3-pointers would be more a part of his game in year two.

The issue has been getting Bender to do this every time he gets the ball. Teammates are not openly seeking him out to score, so when he’s getting the ball outside of ball actions, he’s usually either open to shoot or has enough space to drive past his man and make a play.

No one is concerned about if he makes mistakes while doing this. Where the concern rests is the mindset to always be in attack mode needing to come next.

“The one thing with him is he understands the game of basketball so well and that ball movement is important so maybe if you’re thinking of not shooting you’re thinking about what’s better for the team,” Triano said.

A good way, Triano noted, for a player to get in rhythm is seeing the ball go in, and one of the easiest ways to do that is getting to the free throw line.

The trouble is, Bender’s rarely doing that. Only 3.4 percent of Bender’s shot attempts this year have come with a shooting foul, one of the worst numbers in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.

There are reasons to be worried, but it all comes back to Bender being only 20 years old and still being one of the 20 youngest players in the league. As a No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, it was understood that he was raw and his growth into an overall net positive on the floor would take time.

Triano, at least, does not share any concern.

“It’s not like we have an issue with him or anything, we’d just like him to play the way he was earlier in the year,” he said.

“We have no doubt it will come back.”

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Dragan Bender’s battle with aggression continues in second year for Suns