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Suns’ Dragan Bender finds his opportunity against T-Wolves, KAT

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

PHOENIX — Dragan Bender hadn’t played more than 25 minutes since his Phoenix Suns’ 2017-18 season finale last April.

Count the number of players ahead of him on the depth chart over the course of this season, consider Phoenix opted against picking up the final year of his rookie deal for 2019-20, and Bender’s future in purple and orange looked written in stone.

That is until Suns centers Deandre Ayton (ankle sprain) and Richaun Holmes (foot sprain) went down before Sunday’s buzzer-beating loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The 21-year-old Bender started and played 29 minutes, scoring 12 points to go with 10 rebounds and two assists while being charged with stopping All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Bender gets the second chance in three nights to face Towns on Tuesday at Talking Stick Resort Arena, and the opportunity for the free-agent-to-be and 2016 fourth overall draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“Stay ready, do your thing each and every day. Get in, be professional, do your work, do what you need to do,” Bender said. “Just show that I’m ready.”

Towns’ line Sunday in a 116-114 T-Wolves win didn’t reflect well on paper for Bender. The Minnesota big man scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, but he shot 8-of-22 (36 percent) and was at his worst with Bender on his back.

Towns missed three contested shots early as the Timberwolves ran him off a screen and dumped it down for post-ups against Bender, helping the Suns get off to a fast start.

He eventually got going off switches with smaller players on his back. But that the Suns had the chance to pull out the win showed well on Bender.

Whether the Suns’ double-teams came quickly or not at all, he had more than a handful of wins against Towns, be it in the post or staying in front of him on drives.

“I’ll give him credit. He was focusing really on the defensive end first, starting the game with a few defensive stops,” said Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov. “The offense is going to come. He’s a three-point threat, three-point shooter, and those shots are going to fall in.”

Bender missed all five three-point attempts he took, including a wide open shot from the left wing with just over a minute left that would have put the Suns ahead by six points.

But on both ends of the court, the performance brought up a chance to reevaluate Bender’s positional future in the NBA after he struggled as a rookie with spot minutes at both forward spots and last year playing mostly as a stretch power forward.

Might the 7-foot-1 Croatian project better as a center, especially if he can hold his own as a 21-year-old facing one of the rare post-up-focused players in the league?

Bender remains fleet afoot if not an overwhelming leaper. His hands-up defense at least got Towns out of a rhythm early on.

Offensively, Bender brings another dimension to the Suns’ offense provided he can at least hit an occasional three-pointer (Reminder: he shot a respectable 37 percent last season). Ideally, he can mix floor-spacing shots with rolls that simplify the game for a player who, playing mostly the 4, has mostly lacked the spacing around him and the strength to take opponents off the dribble.

“(Playing center) gives us an advantage on offense for sure and being able to confuse defense each time,” Bender said. “Being able to roll some and pop some gives defenses something to think about.”

In his second clash against Towns on Tuesday, Bender will surely take his share of losses. Phoenix’s success stopping Towns will again rely on doubles and recovering out of them.

But the opportunity for Bender to perhaps redefine his NBA ceiling — and his floor as a written-off high-lottery draft pick — is front and center for a Suns team missing its regular center duo.

A lot of that will be dictated by how he performs on the defensive end.

“It’s different,” he added of playing center. “Different ways to categorize it and stuff like that, but it all comes down to effort. Defense is pure will … definitely just understanding what your opponent wants to do and just getting out there and being able to put effort in and stop it.”

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