Suns Squared: Dragan Bender vs Dirk Nowitzki

Dec 28, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Phoenix Suns power forward Dragan Bender (35) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 28, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Phoenix Suns power forward Dragan Bender (35) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

This is an analyitical investigation of Dragan Bender’s rookie season and how it compares to Dirk Nowitzki’s own rookie year.

Dragan Bender began his NBA life with a lot of promise and high expectations as the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft. Bender’s season didn’t live up to the hype, however, he only appeared in 43 games due to early extra play by veterans and later a foot injury, and averaged only 13 minutes a game when he did reach the court. He even only played in 20 minutes or more nine times.

At first glance, this looks to be a sign of bad things to come, but Bender’s rookie campaign played out extremely similarly to that of Dirk Nowitzki, a player who Bender was compared to frequently in the pre-draft process. Like Bender, Dirk played less than 50 games in his rookie season (47 due to the 1998 NBA lockout). The similarities don’t stop there and by comparing them and looking at Dirk’s second season we can begin to project Bender’s sophomore year.















I wanted to initially highlight some important stats to show where Dirk and Bender are similar then follow-up with where they differ.

As illustrated above, Bender was better than Dirk in only a couple of particular categories – three-point shooting percentage and rebound rate being the main two. Given Dirk’s acclaim as a shooter, if Bender can progress as Dirk did then he should turn into a deadly threat from the outside.

However, there are many worrisome numbers amongst the data as well. Bender did not come close to Dirk in free throw attempts, and when Bender did get to the line he shot a terrible percentage (36%). Other than the 3PT%, Bender generally lacked behind Dirk offensively, but that was to be expected given Bender’s youth and lack of skill development.

One more key number to look at is the USG% (usage). Bender only had a 14% usage while Dirk put up a 22% usage percentage. The main reason for this was that Dirk was highlighted as a rotational centerpiece right away whereas Bender was not. Dirk’s additional opportunities his first year helped to pay off in his second year too. Although this is not directly indicative of Bender as a player. Had Bender not been injured in February and March, then he would have received far more playing time than he had been allotted in the season’s first half. His usage percentage would have increased and at least from a production perspective, his rates would have inched closer to Dirk’s.

Per GamePointsReboundsAssistsFG%3PT%
Dirk 1st Year






Dirk 2nd Year






Dirk’s second year was a model of how to build from a rookie season. Dirk was able to double – or nearly double – all of his major statistical categories. If Bender can improve even a fraction of how much Dirk did next season, it will be a great sign for his future. Even by doubling his rookie stats Bender’s numbers being as low as they were wouldn’t jump a ton. But if he could improve his three-point shooting at the 17.3% clip the way Dirk did, then he would shoot threes at near a 50% clip next year making Bender a deadly threat from beyond the arc (obviously not likely, but a significant leap of even 10% would place him at around 37.7% which would make him a serious stretch threat).

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Bender’s other numbers would improve to 7 points per game, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.25 assists, which are low, especially for the fourth overall pick, so hopefully through additional usage Bender can jump his numbers closer to 10/6/3.

I would be remiss to not mention that there is one key difference between Dirk and Bender that could be a built in limit to Bender’s development. Dirk was on a team that was built specifically for Dirk and Steve Nash to develop into stars and eventually lead Dallas to the playoffs and further. Bender’s situation with the Suns is quite different. Bender was drafted fourth but the Suns also took Marquese Chriss four picks later giving Bender direct competition for playing time at his position, which Dirk did not have at all beyond veteran mentors that were teaching Dirk the ropes. Bender will likely need to improve his numbers and overall play equal to if not more than Dirk did if he wants to stay a focal point of Suns management into the future.