While Marquese Chriss gets the bulk of the rookie minutes to start the 2016-17 season, the Suns other power forward teenage rookie Dragan Bender patiently awaits his big chance.
Chriss is purest power forward on the team and his fearless attitude attacking the basket fills a void no other player on the team can fill. His role is clear, and his chances of playing every game this season are high.
On the other hand Bender, the #4 pick in the 2016 Draft, finds himself entering his inaugural NBA season in much the same role as he played for Maccabi a year ago. He can fill in at all three front court spots, but is too lanky to hold his own defensively for long stretches in the paint and is not consistent enough to provide the offense necessary to play long stretches at small forward.
At the moment, Bender’s NBA-ready skills - high basketball IQ and savvy defense but limited offensive go-to moves - are the hallmarks of two veterans ahead of him in the rotation.
Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker bring much the same pluses as Bender, so the 18-year old youngest player in the NBA gets a chance to watch the 30-somethings succeed while he learns from the bench and awaits his turn.
“We want to find minutes for our young players, at the same time find a way to win games and keep everyone progressing,” Suns coach Watson said of Bender’s role reducing with Tucker coming back. “Those minutes can be fluid, but right now P.J. Tucker has always been a major part of what we do.”
Some fans wonder if this will stunt his development as an NBA player.
Currently, Bender ranks 15th in minutes played by a rookie, but his 29 total game minutes in four appearances + two DNP-CDs (did not play - coach’s decision) leave a lot of fans wanting more.
Bender may spend some time with the D-League NAZ Suns this year to keep up his conditioning and game-readiness while the veterans hold down roles on the big club, but those D-League assignments will likely be few and far between. Bender has a role with the Suns, though you might not think it’s big enough.
The balance of learning from the Suns bench vs. developing a lower level is not a new question for Bender. Observers had the same questions a year ago when he rode the bench for first-division Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“It’s true that he could have gotten much more playing time should he have played in the ABA league,” Moshe Barda or teamscout.com told Ballineurope.com, “But the truth of matter is that he also evolved his game in Maccabi which was visible in terms of not getting stuck under the rim. He also improved his perimeter defensive close-outs etc.”
The same can be said of Bender playing in the D-League this year, the NBA’s closest thing to a “lower level” like the ABA league mentioned above.
While many Suns fans would slot Bender into a 35-minute per game power forward role on the NAZ Suns to see how productive he could be in his natural spot, Bender could fail to develop his other skills that will be necessary on this Suns team in the coming years.
Bender won’t ever put the “power” in the power forward position like Marquese Chriss can. And even if Chriss wasn’t on the same team, Bender would have a tough time holding his own as a rookie defending big men in the paint and fighting for contested rebounds.
While Bender can defend the rim, he’s more likely to be successful as a weak-side shot blocker rotating off his man into the paint. If Bender is expected to roam the paint to defend the rim most of the time, as he would be if he played the ‘center’ position, he’d have a hard time with the physicality required to succeed there over long stretches.
While being the NBA’s youngest player, Bender’s best role is a jack-of-all-trades guy like Tucker where he can slide to different positions based on the personnel around him.
The same way the Suns had Tucker at all three big man positions the few games, the Suns could eventually use Bender in that role as time goes by. Imagine a “small” lineup with 7’2” Bender spotting as the big man who can defend the rim AND the perimeter.
Bender also brings poise on the big stage. In his first NBA minutes of the regular season, after struggling to make his shots, Bender shot without hesitation and drained 4 of 5 shots, including a pair of threes.
“Dragan, I call him a gamer,” Watson said of the rookie. “When there’s 15,000 plus people in the arena, he’s gonna come play. He shows he has that energy at game time.”
Barda says Bender’s experience with Maccabi helped in that regard.
“Being in Tel Aviv away from home and more especially playing at times in ‘hostile’ environments (such as a sold out crowd in Jerusalem) and putting up good numbers have definitely showed how much he matured during that season, something that might not have happened if he were to play outside Maccabi,” Barda said.
Offensively, Bender’s most recognizable NBA level skills at this age profile just like a small forward.
“He definitely showed he can score in various ways, while moving without the ball, can slash to a certain extent, can shoot from deep, he runs the court really well in transition, he can pass the ball both on fast breaks and on set offense (from the post and into) has a high basketball IQ,” said Barda.
Of course, Bender should not be a small forward long term. While he can hold his own out there, he doesn’t stand out from the rest. Long term, he should be in a big man role. He’s too much of a mismatch at the big positions to waste those tangibles on the perimeter indefinitely.
But in the short term, until he adds lean muscle mass to stay in the paint for long stretches, the teenager fits more cleanly in a stretch role both offensively and defensively.
As a long time editor of BiE noted in the article,
“I can’t think of the last Euorpean to come down the NBA pike who was *not* declared to need upper-body work.”
Just like with T.J. Warren two years ago, and Devin Booker last year, the Suns know they have a potentially very good future NBA player on their bench in Bender and that they are not stunting his growth by having him in a limited role early on.
Eventually, Bender will get his chance. Most likely, that chance will come as a result of attrition in the rotation ahead of him. Injury or trades will open up a bigger role for him, probably sooner than later. In the meantime, Bender is not losing anything by watching Tucker and Dudley excel in the jack-of-all-trades role.
“Dragan has great potential in the NBA,” Barda said. “Safe to say that this diamond’s cut is getting clearer and clearer. And the fact that the game is more spaced in the NBA can help him make an impact in his rookie season.”