In the 2016 NBA Draft, General Manager of the Suns Ryan McDonough pulled off a stunt that brought a second high upside forward to the team in the top 8 after picking Bender at #4. At the time, national and local pundits praised McDonough for his gamble on two of the youngest players in the draft, while some questioned his reluctance to pick just one of Chriss or Bender. It seemed as though that if even just one of these two reached their sky-high ceilings, Phoenix would have just added an important piece to their core.
Fast forward to two years later and the outlook on each is not as positive. With a new head coach in Phoenix, Igor Kokoskov, and a big summer ahead for the front office to make decisions, Bender has one more shot at proving his spot in this young team’s core.
It is even a possibility that it may be already too late Bender to stay in Phoenix as there are a variety of potential trades this summer that may include him as a filler piece for a larger trade. Regardless, if he stays on the team through this summer, I believe the 2018-2019 season is a make or break year for the 7’1″ Croatian.
Dragan Bender’s Suns Tenure Thus Far
Coming out of the draft, Bender was touted as a player who could potentially have the highest ceiling out of every prospect. He projected as a PF/C who on offense could shoot the three, run in transition, handle the ball, and play make for others on the block or off the dribble. Where he was even more enticing was on defense where he had the size and length to guard bigs but also the agility to switch 2-5 on the perimeter. Being the youngest player in the draft, there was also an overall sense by many that he would likely not be a productive player for at least a few years, but the thought was that he had the potential to develop into a key starter for a championship level team ala Draymond Green.
During his first two years in the league, while he has shown positive flashes (see video below vs. a very good OKC team), he has looked overwhelmed and lost on the floor for the most part. After getting all sorts of opportunity this season averaging 25 minutes a game and playing all 82 games, he posted an underwhelming average of 6 points, 1 assist, 4 rebounds, and less than a block a game. While it is no surprise that he would struggle early on, these kinds of averages for a 4th overall pick in their second year will make any fan cringe.
Bender’s defense has been inconsistent at best, and it is apparent to most that he likely will not be the defensive unicorn he was once touted to potentially be. On offense he is extremely passive to a fault, even sparking fellow teammate Troy Daniels to publicly call him out on it, “Nobody is going to say anything if he takes 10 shots,” Daniels said. “We want you to be aggressive. When you take two shots, it’s tough for us to win.” Combine his offensive and defensive woes with the fact that he is struggling to rebound over forwards at over 7 feet tall, Bender’s first two years have been nothing short of frustrating to witness for fans.
Reason for Positivity With Bender
Although his first two years in the NBA have been objectively disappointing, all hope may not be lost for Bender. He is still currently the 13th youngest player in the NBA even after last years draft and did not play much at all his rookie season. One could argue that in terms of opportunity, this season was essentially his rookie year for him.
In his last five games of the season, Bender averaged a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds to go along with a 47% 3 point percentage and from the eye test looked visibly more comfortable on the floor in every game. Small sample sizes like this can be misleading but also should not be written off as strong ends to a season can be a good omen for a strong start to the next.
If there is any coach in the NBA who could get the most out of Bender this offseason and on the court next season, it is newly acquired head coach Igor Kokoskov. Kokoskov is widely recognized as one of the best assistant coaches around the league in terms of player development, responsible for the some of the success that players like Dragic, Rubio, and Donovan Mitchell have had in the NBA. “That’s been a pattern of Igor’s wherever he goes – that the young players, in particular, develop and get better,” McDonough stated.
Assuming he is not dealt in a trade, Bender will have the entire offseason to work under Kokoskov, get stronger, and work on his game before going into his third season which I believe will make or break his position as a future piece in Phoenix. Bender certainly does not need to be the most improved player of the year next year to prove that, but consistent play on both sides of the ball for all 82 games while looking comfortable doing it would sure do the trick.