The case for Dragan Bender
Bender has been about as bad as a top five pick can be so far. Through two seasons, he’s averaged 21.1 minutes per game but just 5.4 points. He seems to lack the aggression and confidence needed to become a successful NBA player. All of his advanced metrics are atrocious. And he played very poorly in the Summer League, a league he should have dominated as he enters his third NBA season.
That being said, there’s still reason to have hope Bender can turn it around. Last season, his three point percentage jumped form 27.7 to 36.6. His free throw percentage went from 36.4 (granted on just 11 attempts) to 76.5. Those are both significant jumps and good indicators of a drastically improved shot. The result was a True Shooting Percentage 8.4 points higher.
Chriss is a superior defender, but Bender’s shooting may be even more valuable to this particular Suns team. He allows them to spread the floor without sacrificing size, something Chriss can’t do with a three point percentage below 30.
Bender’s shown significant improvement as a passer, as his assist percentage rose from 5.5 to 8.9 last year. He can also be a league average defender, posting a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of zero and positive Defensive Win Shares last season.
In terms of current production, Chriss has a leg up, but Bender has other things going his way. He’s four months younger and three inches taller than Chriss, and the Phoenix Suns selected him four picks earlier. All of that works in his favor.
The Suns obviously viewed Bender as more valuable in 2016, and it’s possible they still believe that. Bender was considered a raw prospect with high upside when he was drafted, so his struggles aren’t all that surprising. It’s certainly way too soon to write off a top five pick who will begin his third season at just 20 years old.
One possibility for Bender’s future could be to experiment with him at the center position. He’s tall enough at 7-1, but he’d need to bulk up significantly, as he’s currently just 225 pounds. Not to mention his decline in block percentage last season was a major disappointment.
But even so, his ability to stretch the floor on offense might make him more value than Tyson Chandler in the backup five spot. Deandre Ayton can’t play the whole game, and there isn’t an obvious choice of who will come in while he rests.
Bender is a natural four, but if the Suns decide to give Marquese Chriss the primary backup role, Bender could see some time at center. His trade value is likely too low to make a move, and his potential is too high to keep him completely off the floor.
While playing multiple positions can be difficult for players, it may be time to give Bender different looks to help him find his niche. This season could be his last chance in Phoenix. Hopefully he capitalizes on the opportunities he gets, whenever and wherever they may come.