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Reports: Former Suns PF Dragan Bender plans to join CSKA Moscow

Dragan Bender #35 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on March 04, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Bucks 114-105. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Free agent forward and 2016 fourth overall NBA Draft pick Dragan Bender has agreed to a deal with Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow after a tumultuous three years with the Phoenix Suns, according to multiple reports.

Eurohoops’ Varlas Nikos reported Wednesday that Bender verbally committed to a deal barring a strong, last-minute offer from an NBA team. Yahoo! Sports’ Keith Smith adds that Bender’s deal will allow him to continue waiting on NBA offers before committing to CSKA Moscow for next season.

With the reported agreement, it appears the Suns have officially moved on from their two top-10 draft picks in 2016, Bender and No. 8 overall selection Marquese Chriss, both of whom are power forwards.

Bender, 21, appeared in 171 games of a possible 246 over his first three NBA seasons.

The youngest player in his draft class, the 7-foot-1 Bender was lauded as a prospect for his defensive versatility, shooting and potential as a ball-handler.

That made the Croatian an ideal fit for the modern power forward, but his talent never came together in the NBA.

In the rookie year for Bender and Chriss, it was Chriss starting 75 games and veteran Jared Dudley playing reserve minutes. Fighting for minutes under head coach Earl Watson, Bender spent some of his 13.3 minutes per night in 43 games at small forward and never looked comfortable. He only averaged 3.4 points per game and attempted 11 total free throws.

The Suns experimented with Bender bringing the ball up the court at summer league heading into his second season, a concept they quickly abandoned.

With that came the long-standing theme of Bender’s tenure in Phoenix: his confidence. When he had it, he looked more than capable on the court when everything was clicking.

That didn’t happen much in Bender’s second season despite him starting 37 of his 82 games played, averaging 6.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Bender would often hesitate in taking open shots or making decisions as a ball-handler, negating the value of his plus-defense on the other end. Bender and Chriss received more playing time in year two before Chriss was dealt and Bender’s role decreased significantly.

Phoenix declined Bender’s team option for the 2019-20 season, which would have seen him paid $5.8 million. That made the 21-year-old an unrestricted free agent this summer, and it led to him playing the best basketball of his career.

More than ever, Bender was trusting himself and impacting games, particularly by being more physical on the interior. While his averages were down, Bender notably managed a large increase in his two-point percentage from 42.6% two seasons ago to 68.6% last year.

Unfortunately for Bender, his reliable three-point shot of 36.6% on 3.9 attempts per game in 2017-18 dropped significantly to 21.8%. The writing was on the wall that Bender’s time with the team was ending when his option was declined and he jumped in and out of the rotation in 2018-19.

The Chriss trade before last season also brought in fellow power forward Ryan Anderson, who quickly looked unfit to command starting minutes. Those minutes swung to Trevor Ariza or T.J. Warren in smaller lineups, but Ariza was dealt to Washington and an ankle injury kept Warren sidelined for the second half of the season.

With Bender now moving on and the trade of Chriss to the Rockets in the summer of 2018, Phoenix has attempted to patch up the power forward position this offseason.

On the day of the 2019 NBA Draft, the Suns moved down from sixth to No. 11 overall and acquired power forward Dario Saric from the Minnesota Timberwolves while also trading T.J. Warren to Indiana. The Suns later agreed to a two-year deal with former Hornets power forward Frank Kaminsky.

Saric has one year left on his contract before hitting restricted free agency next summer.

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