Hardcore Suns fans and NBA draft analysts alike cringed as Phoenix rookie Dragan Bender spent summer league and the preseason as a ball-handling, 7-foot small forward.
The results weren’t exactly pretty as the 18-year-old looked stunned under the bright lights.
Head coach Earl Watson, who over the past year had put fellow teen and shooting guard Devin Booker at point guard and center Alex Len at power forward to varying results, maintained Bender could play on the perimeter, like Kevin Durant or Lamar Odom.
Yet, as the regular season began with a 10-point outburst in the first game, reality set in. While Bender has excelled defending smaller perimeter players, his brief stints off the bench have been most effective when he’s played the power forward or center position.
“I think that’s probably where he ends up ultimately,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Burns and Gambo show Wednesday. “Either as a power forward or center, or probably both because he is so versatile.
“Obviously, to play consistently here in the NBA he has to get stronger. We’ve been really happy with Dragan and his progress.”
Bender has appeared in eight of Phoenix’s 11 games and averaged just 10.3 minutes per outing.
He earned his first minutes at center over the last four games as Len slid into the starting lineup in place of the absent Tyson Chandler. There, Bender showed the matchup problems he could cause against the NBA’s more athletic centers thanks to his 43 percent three-point shooting, all while continuing to provide sound defense on switches.
McDonough said Bender’s defense has impressed for a teenager.
And he’s seen the results in the statistics: The Suns’ youngest player currently leads the team with a plus-minus of 2.5.
Now, it’s a matter of where the minutes will come for Bender with Chandler returning to the lineup Wednesday night at Denver.
Chandler not just leading in the locker room
Watson revealed this week that Chandler committed to helping the young Suns despite having opportunities to be traded.
Through the first seven games he played before taking a four-game leave after the death of his mother, the veteran center hadn’t just been leading with his voice.
He’s been leading by example.
Chandler leads the NBA heading into Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets with a defensive rebounding percentage of 41.6 and is third in total rebound percentage. The Suns’ defense dropped off from a middle-rung 103.2 points per 100 possessions allowed to a bottom-4 111.6 in the four games sans the center.
“I think you’ve seen some of the value to the team off the court,” McDonough added. “Tyson has been a guy who’s been unbelievable in terms of the effort, leading our group, mentoring our young players, you know, pumping our guys up when they’re a little down or the team’s a little down in terms of wins and losses.”
McDonough said he and Watson didn’t know whether Chandler wanted to remain with the rebuilding Suns this offseason. They made sure to hear from Chandler himself about whether he was committed.
“Honestly, we didn’t know how those conversations would go. I think as a 34-year-old veteran who has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish in basketball, he would’ve been well within his right to quietly and privately (ask for a trade),” McDonough said. “What we found out is, he felt the opposite way.
“It certainly meant a lot to me and Earl personally.”
Knight not on the trade block
Few NBA teams seek out trade agreements involving starting-caliber players at this time of the year, and McDonough said he’d like at least two months to get a feel for the roster.
Asked on the Burns and Gambo show if sixth man Brandon Knight was seeking a trade or if the Suns were thinking about it, McDonough offered this:
“We’re certainly not looking to move Brandon, we haven’t been close to trading Brandon,” he said. “I think he’d love to be starting, we understand that. He’s accepted the role very well. I think you guys will see him go on a run here. As you know, watching him play the last couple years, he has the ability to get hot and put up a lot of points in a hurry and take over stretches of games — he hasn’t done that yet for us consistently but I think it’s coming.”
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