Marquese Chriss, the eighth pick in the 2016 draft, has been thrown into the fire early in his NBA career. Chriss is playing 14 minutes per game and has played 10 or more minutes in every game but one. In fact, he was even promoted to starting power forward ahead of Phoenix's game at Portland.
Chriss has done some good - rebounding and highlight reel dunks, mostly - and has been allowed to play through his struggles - efficiency, turnovers, fouling. Despite the flashes of brilliance and hope for the future he inspires, Chriss is a bad NBA player right now and hasn't helped the Suns win (-47 in 126 minutes).
However, Dragan Bender, the fourth pick in the draft, has not been afforded the luxury of learning as he goes. He has been mostly out of the rotation and has played half the minutes Chriss has. He's played more than 10 minutes only twice in nine games - seeing most of his minutes in garbage time. Chriss has had his share of struggles too, but in the only two games he's seen extended minutes he has played really well and made a positive impact. For the season, Bender is +21 in 62 minutes.
Plus/minus is such a noisy stat, but in this case it does paint a fairly accurate picture of how things have gone so far and illustrates the double-standard Earl Watson has shown with those two young players. I'm not trying to blast Chriss nor do I want him out of the rotation. However, Bender has shown that he deserves a chance to play too.
Bender saw his most extensive action (23 minutes) of the young season in Portland on Tuesday and had his best game since the season-opener (the only other time he's cracked 10 minutes). Bender finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting (2-of-4 from deep) with two rebounds, one assist, one block, two turnovers and two fouls.
I rewatched all of Bender's minutes in the Portland and Detroit games with Tyson Chandler out of the lineup, kept a running log and pulled a couple plays from the Portland game to demonstrate what the rookie brings to the table on both ends of the floor.
Bender still has a ways to go in terms of finding consistency, but he has shown solid offensive potential as a stretch big. Bender struggled at times to play out on the perimeter in summer league with wings guarding him, but he has good ball skills and can exploit mismatches against power forwards and centers.
Here's an example of Bender doing just that. Bender caught the ball at the top of the key with Ed Davis in his face. He decides to go at Davis, putting the ball down going right and attacking the basket. Bender avoids Damian Lillard reaching in from the wing.
As you can see, Davis is still right there on bender's hip, but Bender isn't discouraged. He continues his foray to the rim and avoids Evan Turner trying to reach in as well. Notice Noah Vonleh hanging out under the rim waiting to help.
Bender elevates and extends, and his length is enough to create the separation from Davis he needs to get the shot off. He finger rolls it over the top of Vonleh and finishes high off the glass for a pretty bucket.
Bender attacked the basket again on a nice move later in the game, but on that play the help defense got there and blocked him from behind. He also got a bit excited and moved both feet before getting the ball down for a travel at one point. However, he does show the potential with his ball-handling ability and long strides to attack closeouts. That's an important skill because Bender is also a threat in pick-and-pop or spot-up situations.
Bender's first offensive touch was a kick-out for a 16-foot jumper from the baseline as Leandro Barbosa drove into the paint, drew in Bender's man and passed out to the 7-footer. He caught it and rose up confidently to sink the shot. Later, he was left open at the top of the key and knocked down a 3-pointer in another spot-up situation.
Bender can also be effective as a pop man as the play below demonstrates. He set a screen on Allen Crabbe to free Barbosa. Mason Plumlee, Bender's man, hung back to wait for Barbosa while Crabbe ran under the screen to catch up to him.
Barbosa sees that both defenders went with him, and he kicks it back out to the wide open Bender with a behind-the-back pass that skips out to Bender's knee. However, Bender manages to catch the low pass and...
He confidently rises up to sink the 3 as Plumlee closes out late.
Both of Bender's missed 3s in this game were somewhat rushed or off-balance as he was on the move prior to catching the ball. All three of the jumpers he hit were with his feet squared to the basket.
Bender has a lot of potential offensively, but his greatest value lies in his defensive versatility and instincts. First of all, Bender's help defense is terrific. He does a good job of reading the floor and sliding over into help position when the ball is on the opposite side or his teammates get caught on a screen or in a rotation.
Here's an example of Bender's awareness and his quickness. Brandon Knight and Jared Dudley blew a switch (not sure who is to blame) an before Dudley can recover to get out on Maurice Harkless, Ed Davis picks him off. Seeing his man screening off Dudley, Bender steps up to take Harkless instead. Harkless attacks Bender's close out, but Bender slides his feet and stays in front.
Bender continues sliding in front of Harkless and is right on his hip.
Because of Bender's pressure, Harkless loses the ball and dribbles it on the baseline for a turnover.
He also has the potential to be a terrific pick-and-roll defender with the lateral quickness and length to switch out and stay in front of guards or blitz ball-handlers to force turnovers.
On this play, he hangs back initially as Davis sets a screen on Tucker but steps up to cut off Turner's drive.
With no lane along the baseline, Turner retreat dribbles, and Bender stays attached to him instead of relaxing.
Bender closes all the way out to the corner and gets his arms up and active, making it tough for Turner to find a teammate.
Turner does get a pass off, but one of the Suns knock it loose afterward and the ball bounces out off the Blazers. Great play by Bender.
I have one more play to look at from this game. With less than 20 seconds to play and leading by one, Lillard has the ball and the Suns need a stop. Bender's man, Harkless, sets a high screen and Bledsoe uses it. This time, Bender steps out.
For whatever reason (perhaps he thought he felt contact or thought the clock was running down), Bender tries to fire up a 3-pointer. However, Bender elevates and uses his length to block the shot back over Lillard's head and out of bounds.
"He's a gamer," Watson said after the game. "He's a guy who steps in the game and is different from practices. He's playing well. I want to continue to get him minutes and create opportunities for him to get minutes."
However, Watson didn't get him minutes the next night against Detroit. Bender played just 8:07. Part of that was because of fouls as Bender picked up three quick fouls in just over six minutes, but he finished with just four fouls, and would it really matter if Bender fouled out anyway?
Bender did struggle overall. He shot 0-of-4 from the field (just missed two good looks from 3, took a bad jumper off the dribble and made a good move but didn't have the strength to finish through contact inside) with one turnover and no other stat. But rather than letting Bender play through his mistakes, Watson cut his playing time, despite the fact that Bender was still doing some positive things that didn't show up in the box score on the defensive end.
The Suns did win the game, so it's hard to complain too much, but I can't help but think there was a better way to handle Bender than Watson did. For comparison's sake, Chriss - who also shot 0-of-4 from the field but also grabbed five rebounds - played 14:09.
I'm not saying Bender suddenly needs to be playing starter's minutes, but he does need to be playing. In the two games Bender has played more than 10 minutes, he's scored 20 points and is +30. In the four games he's played less than 10 minutes, he's scoreless. He's been a DNP-CD in three games. He needs a chance to get into the flow of the game and find a rhythm. Whether it's at the four or the five, he needs to play.
Chandler will be back when he's ready, and then Watson will have to make a decision. The 34-year-old is playing 28.7 minutes per game while Alex Len played 19.4 minutes per game with Chandler available. At the forward spots, TJ Warren is leading the team at 36.3 minutes per game, Jared Dudley is at 23.9, PJ Tucker is at 25 minutes per game in his last six after getting healthy and Chriss is at 14.
All I'm asking is for Bender to see 10-15 minutes per game, close to what Chriss is getting. Bender has shown he can do things that no one else on the roster can do, and his talent needs to be developed with experience. Take a couple minutes each from Warren, Chandler and Tucker and you have your playing time for Bender.
The Suns invested in the Croatian teenager with a top five pick. They're winning at a .333 pace. Chriss is playing and Bender is not.
It is time to unleash the Dragan.