The Phoenix Suns are a strange team to watch.
For over two decades, they’ve been home to a style of play reminiscent of their roots in America’s “Wild West”, yet they’ve not always had success to the same magnitude as the excitement they’ve generated. This year, the excitement is still often present in the way they play, but the success has been fleeting, whenever it’s come.
A common thread in both the consistent excitement and unfortunate struggles of the Suns this season has been the offensive gameplan, or (more commonly) a lack thereof. While individual players like Eric Bledsoe, T.J. Warren, and Devin Booker have had remarkable nights scoring the basketball, and the transition-focused attack has occasionally blossomed into offensive success, full-fledged dominance has never really been there.
Players sometimes look lost, moving to their spots lethargically and without a plan, even when executing a simple set. Granted, this is almost a completely new roster after three draft picks and two free-agent signings this Summer, so adjustment time was expected. Unfortunately, more than one-third of the way through the year, the adjustments have been ineffective.
This is the context surrounding Dragan Bender’s team every time he walks onto the court. He is the player the team chose first, ahead of the murky waters of picks five through seven in the draft before their next chance to pick Marquese Chriss at eight last June. He is the youngest player in the NBA; one whose mere position isn’t yet agreed upon, even within the Suns’ community.
He moves his feet well enough defensively to tempt coaches into playing him at the small forward spot, defending players half a foot smaller than him. Then, in the next instant, he protects the rim from the weak side well enough that you consider his potential as a power forward. Finally, his spacing and ball skills unveil the terrifying matchup problem he could become at the center position:
All of this as a nineteen-year-old on an in-between team that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be (or do) on either side of the ball. In some ways, Bender masks those inconsistencies when he plays. Just watch the young Bosnian, and you might come away with an entirely different perception of the Suns’ performance than mine. He is the opposite of his teammates in so many ways: moving constantly and with a purpose on offense; attacking mismatches and switches; spotting up from all over.
Just look at this under-the-radar savvy from Tuesday in Houston:
By far one of Bender's best skills right now is forcing these switches against teams that will give them. Sneaky way of using versatility. pic.twitter.com/KR19gPGjAh— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) December 30, 2016
By spending last season as a pro with Maccabi Tel Aviv in a similar role as his now, fighting for minutes on a competitive team, Bender has gained an understanding of when and how to use his skills. His greatest asset on offense is his uniqueness: Bender can be effective on either side of a screening tandem, big enough to cast aside defenders and skilled enough to take the ball coming off his own screen.
Seeing him scurry through a baseline pindown screen and receive a pass inspires hope, not the worry we’d generally associate with a rookie getting the ball in such a scenario. This is true because of the poise and thoughtfulness the young man displays when considering his role on this crowded Suns squad:
He has a place in the long line of exciting Suns stars; his skills fit right into the tradition of wackiness and versatility that have defined Suns teams past.
My favorite Bender skills:
- Outlet passing (potential to be almost Kevin Love-like)
- Shooting form (perfect little hop to set his feet when on the move, pristine shape)
- Defensive IQ (next to Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker, this guy looks like a genius reading a developing offensive set)
- Defensive footwork
As Cole Zwicker wrote for The Step Back earlier this week, Bender made a name for himself as a draft prospect based on the tantalizing potential he displayed as a disruptor on the defensive end. Though his versatility screams offensive matchup-buster, that maneuverability is just as enticing on defense. Look what he does here:
Bender holds his own against the burly LaMarcus Aldridge, rotates inward to protect the basket, and swallows Dewayne Dedmon’s shot attempt.
As I mentioned in the preview for the Spurs game, McDonough didn’t start Dragan Bender Week off with particularly inspiring language. He repeated the fact that the rookie had played in 75% of the team’s games for about 12 minutes each as perfectly fine progressions, despite fans’ pleas for more.
But Bender’s play has spoken for itself, making another of McD’s points stand out. The Suns’ General Manager also noted that consistently effective use of playing time is the best way for any player to earn more of it, and that if the Suns can win with Bender on the court, he’ll keep getting minutes. After a close loss in San Antonio on Wednesday, the Suns broke through for a win against the second-best team in the Eastern Conference on Thursday.
After that game, coach Earl Watson explained the situation simply to Bright Side:
“Right now,” Watson said. “It’s time for Dragan to come along.”
For the short-term future, it appears Bender is a part of the team’s plans on the court. He has given them plenty of reasons to keep their faith alive.