Dragan Bender is going to test Phoenix Suns’ fans patience like no one since... Alex Len. Selected fourth overall in the NBA draft, the 7-foot 1-inch tall teenager will tantalize and frustrate all season long. And maybe even the season after that.
For the second year in a row, and third time in four years, Suns GM Ryan McDonough drafted the youngest player in the NBA. While last year’s wunderkind Devin Booker is on everybody’s radar, expect Dragan Bender to have a much lower profile.
In his pre-draft assessment of Bender, Bright Side’s Geoff Allen referred to him as “a potential jack of all trades... and likely master of none.” The likeliness of Bender mastering any NBA skills is up for debate. What’s not is that he has the potential to do lots of things very well for a player his size. Defensively, his mobility allows him to switch on to perimeter players and stick with them. In Summer League, when guards and small forwards saw Bender on the switch outside, they routinely gave up the ball rather than challenge all that length for a contested jumper or drive to the hoop. That same length also allows Bender to be a tremendous weakside help defender, as Jeff Withey found out in Phoenix’s first pre-season game against the Utah Jazz.
On offense, that mobility could also pay dividends. When playing at the power forward or center positions, Bender will be tough for opposing fours and fives to keep up with, particularly if Bender’s 3-point shooting percentage comes around (he’s currently shooting a terrible 10% from beyond the arc in the preseason). He also has demonstrated a high basketball IQ and hustle quotient (which I think I just made up), making great passes to teammates for open looks as well as crashing the boards from the perimeter where head coach Earl Watson has him playing most of the time right now.
And therein lies the rub: Dragan Bender is not a perimeter player. His greatest strengths as a match-up problem as both an offensive and defensive player will come from playing him against bigger, slower competition and the power forward and center positions. On the wing, Bender has some potential, but right now he’s just a tall below-average small forward. The good news is that this conundrum is more about development (I think) than bad coaching (I hope).
While being over seven feet tall provides Bender with an array of advantages, his 225-pound weight provides all sorts of disadvantages. Like the fact that he’s one of the few players Jared Dudley — also listed at 225 but a full 6 inches shorter — could bully on the block or easily box out. When you imagine a larger, stronger forward or center in place of Dudley, things get ugly for the slender rook.
Because of this and P.J. Tucker’s injury, the Suns’ coaching staff has thus far decided to play Bender mostly at small forward. His role there has been to take the open three-pointer (not working) or make a smart pass to set up his teammates (working much better than shooting thing). As a consequence, he has a tendency to look disengaged when compared to fellow rookie Marquese Chriss, who is being set up with lots of looks in and around the key.
The bottom line is that Bender has a lot of growing to do, both figuratively and literally, before he can reach his full potential as an NBA player. He probably won’t be setting off fireworks on the offensive end as long as he’s being asked to camp out at the three point line. On defense, his most noticeable contributions will hopefully be more of those weakside blocks. But his true strength will be on switches, forcing extra passes and freezing guards and wings while the rest of the defense resets. He will not be a highlight machine.
In fact, he might be the most boring — and potentially least seen — player on the Suns this season. Once P.J. Tucker returns to the lineup, his opportunities at small forward will dwindle. With Jared Dudley and Marquese Chriss logging most of the minutes at power forward and Alex Len and Tyson Chandler as an established tandem at center, Bender may be the odd man out in the frontcourt this season. A lack of minutes in Phoenix could translate to a wealth of them in Prescott. The proximity of the NAZ Suns makes transferring players back and forth to the D-League a much simpler prospect.
Bender’s rise as a Phoenix Suns is most likely to be a slow burn. We’ve seen fan patience tested with Alex Len and Archie Goodwin. The price of being selected 4th overall is the commensurate pressure to succeed. Bender’s got the tools to contribute to the Suns eventually, but this season will be spent honing most of them.