Despite the weak numbers, Suns rookie Dragan Bender is playing like a top-5 pick

Jan 19, 2017, 6:45 AM | Updated: Jan 20, 2017, 8:07 pm

Phoenix Suns Dragan Bender, left, challenges San Antonio Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge for the ball in th...

Phoenix Suns Dragan Bender, left, challenges San Antonio Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge for the ball in the second half of their regular-season NBA basketball game in Mexico City, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

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We all have our own expectations, and the burden of being a top-five selection in the draft is grueling for Dragan Bender when you look at his statistics.

He’s averaging 3.3 points, 2.2 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in only 12.8 minutes per game.

To the untrained eye, the impactful label of “bust” could be cocked and loaded. To others watching more closely, however, Bender is fulfilling the potential worthy of the selection and doing everything that was expected of him and then some in his rookie season.

Bender’s profile out of the draft was being an elite role player. 

He can shoot threes, switch onto any position defensively and is too quick off the dribble for any traditional big man.

That was my read on Bender in March and so far, it checks out.

Let’s start with the shooting.

On the season, Bender is shooting 34 percent from three. Nearly all of these are open and in catch-and-shoot scenarios.

An underrated quality about Bender is that he does not lack confidence. Head coach Earl Watson jokes about it at times, and he’s not wrong.

Bender is not afraid to shoot, a terrific quality for a middling three-point shooter. The problem for him was translating his willingness to shoot into actual confidence through his form. Early in the season, it was easy to see when Bender was rushing his shot, taking too much time or doing an overall poor job of sticking to his basics.

Having the confidence to shoot and being confident when shooting are two different things, and the difference between October and November to the last month of Bender playing consistent minutes is apparent.

Even if the clips vary in the speed of his release, it’s smooth as soon as he goes through his motion. The best way to see this is those last two clips when Bender isn’t even receiving the ball at or around his chest. He’s not panicking and staying true to his form. Even something like looking down to make sure he was behind the line seemed like something he was too scared to do. Now, it’s no problem.

Bender looks at his best on the right wing, as shown in a couple of those previous clips. He’s only shooting 29 percent from there, but 28 of his 71 three-point attempts have come from that area.

He’s really turned the corner around the new year, and in a game against the Jazz on New Year’s Eve, watch Watson’s reaction after Bender shows no hesitation stepping into a transition look.

What did Watson do for his youngster with confidence brewing? Ran a set for him the very next play, of course. “Elevator doors” is run to perfection here, and watch the subtle celebration from Bender after the make.

The defender Rodney Hood is looking at the primary ball screen action between the Suns’ two biggest sources of offense and loses Bender, panicking and barreling over Tyson Chandler. All the signs are there for Bender to not only be a good three-point shooter but beyond that as well.

Where Bender can maximize his value offensively is as a passer, because if his handle ever tightens up, he can begin to take guys off the dribble that respect his perimeter shooting and hit an open man.

Even if Bender offensively is only a decent three-point shooter who can occasionally attack the basket and facilitate, there are ways to use him as Watson did in that Utah game.

It’s all not pretty, though, and it never is for the youngest player in the league. Bender has more brain farts than Marquese Chriss does at this point, a surprising development considering Bender was a professional overseas and basketball is fairly new to Chriss.

It’s hard to see these as anything more than growing pains. Bender possesses a handful of different elements to his game and it’s going to take time for him to fully develop them.

With that out of the way, this, of course, is all an additional — yet small — collection of skills to complement his best attributes as a defender.

Bender’s shown over the course of the past few weeks that he can indeed switch onto most players and still be effective on defense while also protecting the rim. There’s a “put up or shut up” type of mentality a prospect has to prove when they are touted as a defender coming into the draft, and Bender’s certainly done that.

If he didn’t mostly play against second units, the argument could be made that Bender has been a good NBA defender, an exceptional turnout for almost any rookie.

The best example of Bender’s defensive ability that I’ve seen this season came when the rookie was facing Kyrie Irving.

This clip might not look like much to some, but pay specific attention by pausing and playing the video step-by-step to grasp how absurdly difficult Irving’s move is to defend. First, there’s the wicked crossover, which is the best one on the planet, by the way.

Instead of falling over into the stands, Bender is still with Irving to a point, but then Irving has an even more ridiculous step-back turned into a hop-step that transforms into a corner three. Bender actually rises to defend the step-back before the hop, but then instead of jumping or committing, he quickly readjusts to closing out on the hop and, due to his length and quickness, Irving has no room to get the shot off.

He’s seven feet tall. Human beings of his size do not move like that, but Bender defies that presumption every chance he gets.

Getting better and better each time he plays, the aforementioned confidence comes in arguably more with his defense, where Bender’s becoming more audacious with his shot-blocking.

The special mix of Bender’s talent defensively comes in how agile he is for a seven footer because the result of that recipe is someone who can contain perimeter threats while also not being a liability around the basket.

While at different points in their careers, Brandon Ingram, Rudy Gobert and LaMarcus Aldridge are used to having a whole lot more space when they shoot. But Bender — like he has all season — continues to catch opponents off guard by not only how much he can stay on them but also how quickly he can recover if he loses them for a split second. The Aldridge clip, in particular, is a good look at how Bender is not completely overwhelmed as a post defender. He still presents an issue for the offensive player despite his thin frame.

Yes, Bender is averaging 3.3 points per game, shooting under 40 percent from the field, is below the league average as a three-point shooter and has attempted less than 10 free throws all season.

He’s also flashing his potential every time he plays, so much so that we can’t even call it potential anymore. Simply put, he’s good, and the Suns have a special, unique player for the foreseeable future that can be an interchangeable puzzle piece based on how they want to go about their own future.

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