Why the Phoenix Suns should not give up on Dragan Bender just yet

The Phoenix Suns should give Dragan Bender another year or two to show his unique skillset. Seven footers with his talent are a rare commodity these days.

Last season the Phoenix Suns finished with the worst record in the West and the second worst record overall in the entire NBA as they finished going 24-58. This is primarily because they were one of the youngest team in the NBA; fourth behind Toronto, Portland, and Philadelphia. Amidst all the loses there was one guy that showed flashes of brilliance in the little time he played. The fourth overall pick back in the 2016 NBA draft Dragan Bender.

Bender saw very limited action during the season mostly, because of an ankle injury he suffered back in January. Even prior to the injury the Croatian was not putting up eye popping numbers as he only averaged 3.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, while playing 12 minutes per game in 37 games. In those limited minutes he has shown flashes of the potential and talent many scouts saw in him before he was selected fourth overall.

Feel for the game/Basketball IQ

On this play you will see how Dragan Bender was scouting the defense and saw that Alan Williams was open in the lane. Notice that even before he caught the ball he was already looking at Williams’ deep position against Dallas Mavericks’ Salah Mejiri. He made the right pass, which is a bounce pass, so that Mejiri could not poke the ball loose. After that it was an easy layup for Williams right below the rim.

This play is called “Zipper Backdoor” where a wing gets a pindown; in this case it was Derrick Jones Jr, and tries to beat his man with a backdoor cut. Jones could not beat his man so Bender immediately makes the right call by sprinting to the three point line for an open 3-pointer. And being 7 foot1 it is easy to get the shot over any defender.

For a 19 year old rookie, Dragan Bender’s basketball IQ is off the charts. He has shown multiple times that he will make the right plays.

Offensive arsenal

For the most part in his rookie season Dragan Bender was primarily used as a spot up shooter. Mainly because the Suns’ coaching staff wanted him to create space for Devin Booker. However, there were times where he showed he can put the ball on the floor and create for himself.

Like in this play, once he got the ball he surveyed the floor for open shooters, but three of his teammates were behind on the play. This meant there was no one underneath the basket. He simply put his head down and took on the shorter Chandler Parsons, who had no chance on stopping the Bender’s spin move. Once Bender fills out his body plays like this will be a regular sight in the valley.

Here he takes advantage of Dallas Mavericks rookie Jarrod Uthoff who was ball watching the entire possession. Once Bender caught the ball a simple head fake and slight show of the ball got Uthoff off the ground. It is a sight to behold when a 7’1 power forward makes the one dribble pull-up. Truly a unique skill that will continue to be more polished once he gets more minutes under his belt.

In my opinion, Bender can do the most damage in these kinds of scenarios where he has the ball at the top of the key. Here he fakes a hand-off and dribble drives against his defender. It is easy to imagine if he was handing the ball off to Eric Bledsoe or Devin Booker, the defense will have to respect those guys so the lane will naturally be open for drives like these. He also showed his soft touch with the reverse off the opposite side using the rim as a shield.

Passing

In this day and age big men who can pass are a hot commodity. Guys like Blake Griffin, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Nikola Jokic has shown that the NBA is going in a direction where all-around skill for a big man is a necessity. Of course most scouts believed that Dragan Bender’s biggest strength is his uncanny ability to find the open man and make spectacular passes.

On surface this pass is a fairly simple baseball pass to an open Booker. The fact that Booker was on the move and Bender hit him right in his shooting pocket should excite most Suns fans. All Booker had to do was simply rise up for the easy jumpshot.

Here is another example of him hitting guys right in their shooting pockets and it was off an amazing one handed bullet pass. If he can ever get the green light to make passes like these, then there is no reason to doubt that he can potentially be one of the best passing bigs in the league next season.

“We want him to take the ball off the rim as a rebound and push it. We want to see him make plays. We want to figure out a system where he can run some point, just let him open up his game,” Coach Earl Watson said this prior to the start of this year’s summer league. This play perfectly summarizes what Watson wanted. Bender gets the ball then pushes the break and makes the gorgeous bounce pass to Alan Williams.

Defense

Probably the most important skill a big man should posses. In my opinion a power forward/center should be able to defend both the pick and roll, as well as protect the rim. Luckily for the Suns Dragan Bender can do a little bit of both.

Watch how he Bender bends his knees to keep up against Travis Leslie. He needs to be more disciplined when it comes to pump fakes. However, plays like these shows that Bender can become a great defender, because of his combination of IQ, length, and quickness.

The basketball IQ he showed in this clip is amazing. Watch how vocal he is to his teammate Marquese Chriss about help defense. He forces Nigel Williams-Goss baseline. He stayed in front of his man and never fell for any of the hesitation moves Williams-Goss was trying to pull. His length clearly bothered Williams-Goss as his mechanics were thrown out the window once he was in the air.

Almost every team in the NBA running the pick and roll, it is important for a big guy to be able to switch onto a smaller guard. Here Yogi Ferrell tried to beat Dragan with an in and out move, but notice how Bender quickly turned his hips to recover. Then he used his length to block the shot. It is impressive how he timed that block perfectly preventing the easy layup.

Conclusion

All in all, Dragan Bender was drafted as a project back in 2016. He was considered extremely raw and everyone knew it would take time before he can contribute to a team. At some point in the future he will have to turn all these flashes into actual substance.

The Phoenix Suns are embracing the youth movement and Bender should get the chance to show a little more next season. He will get a long leash next season so we will see how much he has improved over the course of the offseason.

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