Generally, there's no question the best rookies get their first NBA action for their new team in Summer League. We don't even have to ask whether Marquese Chriss or Tyler Ulis will don the Phoenix Summer Suns uniforms next month because they most certainly will.
Yet sometimes foreign-born players miss Summer League because of National Team obligations for summer tournaments. Goran Dragic never made it to SL because of his commitments to the Slovenian National Team. And even if Bogdan Bogdanovic would have signed with the Suns last week, he would not have showed up in Vegas because he's such an important part of the Serbian National Team.
Dragan Bender is certainly one of the most talented players in Europe, and an important "get" for the Croatian National Team, but he is not going to play for them this summer after a dispute last year had him leave the the Croatian U19 team just before play began.
Vladimr Vanjak, Croatia's head of delegation at the tournament in Heraklion (Crete), Greece, said: "If he cannot play in Jordan Brand, he cannot play. That's it."
The 17-year old Bender already had an exclusive shoe deal with adidas, and because of that refused to wear the team-sponsored Jordan brand shoes during the tournament. The delegation claimed that Bender knew the rule and surprised them with the refusal, while Bender's camp insists he was promised all along he could bend the rule but then got surprised at the last moment by Croatia trying to enforce it.
This story on si.com provides a wonderful description of what happened, and how silly it all is. Remember Michael Jordan's famous clash in the Reebok-sponsored 1992 Olympics? Now, Jordan-brand Nike shoes are the center of this new conflict. Oh, the irony.
Bender later said that he was most disappointed with the delegation because they questioned his loyalty and the loyalty of his family over money. Yet, truth be told, it's the Croatian U19 team's own heavily binding sponsorship deal that caused the problems.
"Well it hurt me," Bender said in the interview. "Not just because they didn't let me play, but they also started talking a lot of things in the newspapers without any reason to mention my family or myself. Those are not nice things to hear from your own federation. Since then I have not talked to anyone on the national team, so I don't really need an apology from them, but since then no one has even called me or tried to get in contact with me. I guess it doesn't matter. We will see what happens this summer.
Later in 2015, Adidas designed a logo-less shoe specifically for Bender so that he could play for Maccabi Tel Aviv, who had a deal with Nike and Jordan Brand as well.
For now, Bender has not spoken with his national team but expressed that he would someday like to join them for international play. The Senior National Team supposedly does not have the same requirement for Jordan-brand shoes.
Fun fact: New Suns assistant coach Jay Triano is the head coach for the Canadian National Team, who just beat the Dragan-less Croatian team on June 20 in a tuneup for the Olympic qualifiers which overlap with Summer League. A guy named Phil Scrubb was Canada's top scorer in the game.
The SMNT is up 67-60 on Croatia as we head into the fourth quarter #WeAreTeamCanada pic.twitter.com/fvKPVHLayE— Canada Basketball (@CanBball) June 20, 2016
That Croatian team includes fellow Croatian Dario Saric (2014) as well as NBA players Bogan Bogdanovic (Nets) and Mario Hezonja (Magic). Three days later, the Croatian team returned the favor to Canada in another friendly, winning 78-70.
Bender, and fellow 2016 first rounders Ante Zizic and Ivica Zubac are part of the future of Croatian Senior National Team.
This summer at least, Dragan Bender is focusing on the Suns, along with rookie teammates Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis. Partly because of Ulis, the Suns SL team will likely also include First-team All-NBA Rookie Devin Booker, who is looking swoll lately.
Compare this to the Booker who took the floor in SL last year.
Maybe you can't tell from the pictures, but trust me Booker is looking filled out. Some of that might be water-weight that sometimes accompanies weight-lifting during an off season. Every player that says they gained 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason is a player who ends up losing some of that after a couple months into the next NBA season.
Still, Booker would be a great influence on the Suns' rookies who all need to drink a few more protein shakes.
"Devin is going to be around the team," coach Ryan McDonough said to Bright Side on Friday. "He's going to practice with the team. He will play some. I doubt he plays all the games, but we're still trying to figure that out. Especially since we have Tyler."
Most of the time, the most accomplished rookies don't partake in SL their second year. That's because SL is a learning environment for guys who still need the seasoning and are fighting for NBA jobs. Booker doesn't need SL, but his best friend being drafted by the Suns will make it nearly impossible to keep him away.
Like Miles Plumlee two years ago, though, don't expect to see more than a couple of games from Booker.
"With USA basketball coming right on the heels of that and with him being on the Select Team," McDonough said. "We also want to make sure he's ready for that and doesn't get burnt out. As good as summer league is, you can't get a better experience for a young guy than playing for the USA basketball team."
The Summer Suns will be coached again by Nate Bjorkgren, while head coach Earl Watson and probably a few other Suns players watch from the stands. Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker both supported the team all week last year, with Tucker being a regular every summer.
As far as other young Suns are concerned, both Alex Len and Archie Goodwin have already been in the NBA three seasons and will not be part of the team unless they request it. And there's no reason for either to request to participate. Archie has done everything he can in three SLs already, and frankly Len doesn't need any more chances for injury.
T.J. Warren, one of the best players in last year's SL, is still recovering from his broken foot and just recently began running again. He will not play this year, but probably would not have played anyway since dominating a year ago. Again, SL is for guys competing for jobs.
The Summer Suns will play at least five games over the course of up to 10 days, depending on whether they make it to the nominal championship game.