Dragan Bender is the biggest enigma on Phoenix's roster.  At 7'1" , the Croatian has the siz..."/> Dragan Bender is the biggest enigma on Phoenix's roster.  At 7'1" , the Croatian has the siz..."/>

Is Dragan Bender the NBA’s Next Unicorn?

Jan 3, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) shoots the basketball in the first half of the NBA game against the Miami Heat at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns won 99-90. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 3, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) shoots the basketball in the first half of the NBA game against the Miami Heat at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns won 99-90. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports /

Dragan Bender is the biggest enigma on Phoenix’s roster.  At 7’1″ , the Croatian has the size of a big man but the skill set and versatility suited for a wing.

Unicorns are mythical creatures. Wondrous beasts; depicted as white horses with one long horn extruding from their foreheads. They fly and spread happiness throughout the land with their wizardry and farts made of rainbows and glitter. In the NBA, a unicorn is player who is one in a million. A type of player that does not fit any traditional NBA position and seems to completely question the game of basketball on a nightly basis.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been the gold standard in recent years for the title of NBA unicorns. LeBron, at 6’8″ 250 lbs, absolutely dominates both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively. He can play point guard through center and no mirror match up has ever been able to stop him. Durant is a 7 foot giant at the small forward position. Formally known as the Slim Reaper, his ball handling skills set him apart from anyone his size. He has the handles of a point guard, the slashing ability of a shooting guard, the post game of a power forward, and the height of a center. These two are truly unicorns. But there is a new wave in the NBA. A wave that has even more unicorn potential.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl Anthony-Towns are the next generation of NBA unicorns whom are on pace to absolutely break traditional basketball. Each of these players have incredible earth shattering skills for their body types. Each one is at least 6’11”, can run the floor like a gazelle, and creates match up problems on every single possession. The question for Suns fans is, can 7’1″ Dragan Bender join their company?

There are a multitude of aspects in Benders game that should get fans excited for the future. For a 7’1″ player he can run the floor extremely well. When you watch him run the court on a fast break he looks like Nikola Jokic, if Jokic was not overweight and slow. His vision is also superb for a young player. Bender is extremely capable to make the right pass on the fast break to set up his teammates to score. He scores 1.21 points per fast break which puts him in the upper echelon of the league.

For a giant player Bender has the uncanny ability to drive and take opposing defenders head on. His strides are so long it only take is him two steps from the three point line to get to the hoop. He boasts an excellent 50% field goal percentage on drives to the hoop.

The most eye opening talent Bender currently has is his defensive prowess. He can guard smaller-faster players because of his length and quickness. While guarding big men there are times where he can get bullied but he does have the mental awareness to position himself to either strip the ball or make a solid contest on the ball. Although slightly skewed because of his limited minutes, Bender does have the second best defensive rating on the Suns.

Out of all the unicorns, Antetokounmpo might be the best comparison. Both were tremendously young coming into the draft, not defined into one position, and had scouts drooling with potential. If you adjust Benders minutes played to the minute freedom Giannis was gifted, their rookie seasons have almost identical stat lines;


6.8 points – 4.4 rebounds -1.9 assists – 0.8 steals – 0.8 blocks


6.2 points – 4.3 rebounds – 0.8 assists – 0.4 steals – 1 block

After the ‘Greek Freaks’ rookie season he saw his minutes per game jump from 24 minutes to 32 minutes per game. He was on the same minutes trajectory as Bender his rookie season. Antetokounmpo started off the season playing very limited minutes and then after the All-Star break the Bucks began to give him serious development minutes. Now, in the last two seasons he plays 35 minutes per game averaging an incredible stat line of 23 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals a contest. Antetokounmpo was extremely raw when he first came into the league. He was scrawny, young, and lacked significant fundamentals, but the Bucks gave him the opportunity to thrive and learn through failures. The development of Antetokounmpo should be the blue print on how Phoenix should process Bender.

Take the stat line comparison with a grain of salt because they play completely different on the court. The purpose is to show that an underwhelming rookie campaign of an 18 year old kid from a foreign country is not indicative of the future player he might become.

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The comparison to Porzingis was always lazy. It was a knee jerk reaction built on hype when in reality Bender is completely different. Porzingis came into the NBA at 20 years old at 7’3″ 240 lbs. He had adult NBA body and skill set. Porzingis already had a face up game, a post up game, a body that could bang down low, he was empirically more NBA ready than Bender. Bender was only 18 coming into the league. He has a great looking stroke and has three point range but other than that his offensive game is still very raw. His defensive abilities on the other hand have shown the the most potential; his length and speed allows his to recover extremely well, similar to Antetokounmpo.

In Benders current state he is used in pick and pop situations or set up for a corner three, with the occasional opportunity to make a drive to the hoop. This has been by the design of Watson in an attempt to get him comfortable playing at the highest level. Coming from Croatia at the age of 18, there is a huge learning curve and acclimation period that should be anticipated; not just in the style and pace of play of the league, but also culture.

It is incredibly unfortunate that Bender is currently injured because with Chandler, Knight, and Dudley receiving less playing time in favor of the younglings, this would have been an excellent opportunity for Bender to get some consistent in game experience.

Bender is a versatile talent who has the potential to develop into a player unlike any other. With the NBA going small and unconventional, Phoenix by next season could turn Bender into the center of the future. 7’1″ is laughable when suggesting it would be “small ball” but in essence that is what it would be. A 7’1″ Draymond Green with the offensive skill set of Toni Kukoc.

The future is bright Suns fans.