Many Suns fans have been clamoring for Dragan Bender to get more minutes for a long time now, and coach Earl Watson is finally ready too.
“He’s all across the board stats(wise),” Watson said, using Lamar Odom as an example. “Points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, steals and deflections. And he’s just scratching the surface.”
This week, Bender - the youngest player in the NBA - has been given the biggest rotation minutes he’s had in two years. He’d been spotting minutes on the wing for two months, but now looks to get regular power forward minutes for the foreseeable future.
For the last three games, Bender has come off the bench in Jared Dudley’s place at more of his natural position at power forward. He posted a rare double-double in 27 minutes on Monday, then 10/4 on Wednesday in 27 more minutes before a more meager 3/3 in 11 minutes due to early foul trouble on Thursday. In every game, Bender played with moxie and confidence rare in a teenager.
“He has this sense of fearlessness,” Watson said of Bender. “You look into Dragan’s eyes and you see this sense of conviction that I am capable or I am ready or I am competitive.”
Here’s Bender talking at length post-game about his larger role.
So why not play him more minutes earlier in the season, like you did teenager Marquese Chriss? While Chriss has started most of the games this year and is getting nearly 20 minutes a night at his natural position, Bender had seen just 11 minutes per game in 26 of 33 games, mostly at small forward, and got a DNP-CD in two of three games prior to the change. He’d especially lost time since T.J. Warren and P.J. Tucker both got healthy.
“I think we had to,” Watson said of making Bender wait while Chriss and Devin Booker got all the minutes. “Because they are all so young. You can’t put too many on the court at once, you have to bring them along slowly.”
Watson was already giving 20-year old Devin Booker 33 minutes per game, 19-year old Marquese Chriss 20 minutes per game and even 23-year old T.J. Warren is his first big-minute role at 30+ minutes per game.
Now you can add Dragan Bender, who just turned 19 a month ago, to the mix too.
Unfortunately, it’s at the expense of Jared Dudley at this time. Bender appears to have been given all of Dudley’s minutes in order to get him time at power forward behind Marquese Chriss. When I asked Watson about that, the coach was curt in his reply.
“It was at the 4 position. [Dudley]’s our only 4,” Watson said, likely meaning that Dudley was the only power forward he was willing to bench, given the other is rookie Marquese Chriss.
“It is what it is,” Watson said of how Dudley is taking it. “It’s the NBA. Everyone’s all right. We all live a nice life.”
While those quotes may appear cryptic and imply that family-first Watson is being unnecessarily aloof about Dudley, well... they are.
It sucks for Jared to be the one to sacrifice not once but twice now. Remember, it was Dudley who moved to the bench to give Marquese Chriss a chance to start regularly. And now Dudley is out entirely.
But on the other hand, if someone had to sacrifice at this time, with this roster, Dudley made the most sense.
I think Watson realizes Dudley has nothing to lose by sitting out a few games. JD has a hefty three-year contract in hand and open desire to stay in Phoenix for the rebuild. Dudley was signed exactly for this purpose over the summer, and he has said it himself that he came in with eyes wide open.
On the other hand, benching P.J. Tucker could cost Tucker a lot of money in free agency next summer, if not in trade destinations over the next few weeks.
And there’s no point benching either of Chriss or T.J. Warren, or even Alex Len, during a youth movement.
So, it’s Bender in, Dudley out for now.
“Right now,” Watson said. “It’s time for Dragan to come along.”
After pushing the veterans earlier this season in search of wins, the Suns coaching staff seems ready for the process to move into second or third gear.
“For us it’s just fun to watch,” Watson said. “And to see these guys play, even though you lose, you get discouraged, you’re such a competitor, you want to win so bad…but then you realize that there’s going to be one day, you know that day is coming soon and with basketball it can happen quickly. But we need it to be a purposeful journey, a purposeful plan, and not just by accident.”
On Thursday night, the plan looked like it was coming along well. All three rookies and Booker contributed good minutes as the Suns beat the East’s second best team in the Toronto Raptors.
And I’m sure Jared Dudley will be back in the rotation at some point soon. Maybe at small forward, though, considering Chriss and Bender are now the future at the big spot next to Chandler or Alex Len.
Some day, Watson wants to have both Chriss and Bender out there together in a big/small front court, which would lead to a reduction of minutes for Tyson Chandler some day.
“You have two young guys who, to me, complement each other very well,” Watson said.
Bender has the speed and lateral quickness to defend in space and at the rim on the same possession and can make threes with consistency, while Chriss has the more diverse offensive game and has athleticism to make highlight plays at any time.
“Our plan was to bring all of them along, but at different times,” Watson said. “It’s been consistent. We’ve always said that they will all get to the same destination just not at the same time. Different journeys. To bring them to the same destination now is just fun to watch.”
For better or worse, the Suns have to find out if Bender, Chriss, Booker and Warren can play together in the same core for the future. Whoever gets drafted next spring or acquired in trades or free agency, the Suns have to know if these four can play together or not. Now is the time to find out.
What about Tyler Ulis?
And no one is forgetting about rookie just-turned-21 year old point guard Tyler Ulis.
“We understand how special and important Tyler Ullis is for us moving forward and building our program,” Watson said after the game. “The vision we have to do something special. So anytime we have the opportunity to play him, he will get into the game.”
Ulis got 15 good minutes in the win over Toronto on Thursday night after Brandon Knight got into foul trouble. He didn’t back down to the bigger Toronto guards, and scored 10 points including a big three pointer to push the Suns lead back to 10 in the fourth quarter after Toronto made a run. Every time he’s played, Ulis has shown he is ready for NBA minutes.
“Earl (Watson) told me to be ready,” Ulis said. “And B. Knight got in foul trouble early, so I just tried to make up for those minutes.”
Here’s Ulis’ post game interview, where he talks about the opportunities he’s gotten, even as a rookie.
And here are his highlights.
But Ulis represents another conundrum with veteran minutes.
Some day soon, Watson will have to make that next big decision. He’s already benched Brandon Knight to make Devin Booker full-time starter, and benched Jared Dudley twice to give full-time roles to Chriss and Bender.
Now, who loses minutes to Ulis?
Is it the affable and dependable Leandro Barbosa? Or the on-again-off-again Brandon Knight, whose already lost his starting spot this season? Both are fighting for their rotation lives right now, and unlike Dudley neither of them knows what 2017 will bring.
As the season rolls along, the Suns and Earl Watson continue to have to make the tough decisions on a mismatched roster in need of trades to ease the pressure.