EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

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

Jan 22, 2019, 1:28 PM

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)...

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(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.”

Empire of the Suns

Jaime Jaquez Jr. #11 of the Miami Heat is guarded by Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Golden State Warrior...

Kellan Olson

22 for 22: Can Suns find rare instant contributor in NBA Draft?

There is no doubting the value it would bring the Phoenix Suns to select a player in the NBA Draft who was a long-term part of what they do.

14 hours ago

Emmanuel Mudiay, Knicks vs. Suns...

Kevin Zimmerman

9 players to know: How the Valley Suns’ G League team can help Phoenix

Let's peek at the Valley Suns G League roster to see which players can help the Phoenix Suns, who is a developmental prospect and more.

16 hours ago

General manager James Jones of the Phoenix Suns looks on after the game against the Miami Heat at F...

Kellan Olson

22 for 22: Suns could triple down by dealing unprotected 2031 pick

The Phoenix Suns have an extra measure they can take this offseason to upgrade the roster, but it would come with real risk.

1 day ago

Nassir Little #25 of the Phoenix Suns on the court during introductions to the NBA game at Footprin...

Kellan Olson

22 for 22: Should Nassir Little be Suns’ trade asset or reclamation project?

Nassir Little is one of the few trade chips for the Phoenix Suns to use this offseason. But should they just keep him instead?

3 days ago

Tristan da Silva #23 of the Colorado Buffaloes attempts a shot in the second half against the Boise...

Kellan Olson

22 for 22: Tristan da Silva is ideal ‘NBA-ready’ wing for Suns in NBA Draft

If we're mapping out the perfect offseason for the Suns, it includes them selecting a wing in the NBA Draft that can be solid right away.

3 days ago

Miami forward Kyshawn George...

Kevin Zimmerman

Biggest need vs. best value: ESPN NBA mock draft picks Suns’ options

Tyler Kolek would fit the Phoenix Suns, while Miami's Kyshawn George could be a great value pick at 22nd overall in the 2024 NBA Draft.

4 days ago

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