When the Phoenix Suns drafted Dragan Bender from Croatia via Maccabi Tel-Aviv with the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, most of the Suns faithful breathed a sigh of relief. Bender was widely considered the third best talent in the Draft until win-now Boston went with Jaylen Brown at the third pick because he appeared closer to NBA-ready.
But there were, and still are, many skeptics of Bender's future in the NBA.
This theatrical Bender profile before the draft is evidence of how little anyone knew of Bender in advance of making one of the biggest decisions in their franchise's year, if not decade. Teams picking in the Top 6-8 of the draft had to make a leap of faith on Bender, and some just weren't ready to do it.
He was projected to go anywhere from the 3rd to the 7th pick on draft night, but none of those teams were comfortable hitching their wagon entirely on Bender. Even the Suns, who have a long view of player development at the moment, hedged by trading up for their #2 target in Marquese Chriss to join Bender in Phoenix.
None of us, including many scouts, had seen more than a few minutes of Bender playing significant minutes since lighting up the stage in the 2014 U17 European Championships. The 17/18 year old was buried on veteran benches for Euroleague teams the last two years, getting less than 10 minutes per game.
Now three weeks after being drafted and five days into his first Summer League we fans, positively drunk from this onslaught of live footage, feel ready to put limits on the 18 year old's future.
He's too tall (at least 7'1") and slow to be a small forward. Too skinny (220 lbs) and earthbound to be a rim-protecting center. Maybe, possibly he'd be a real good stretch four or five like Channing Frye but the Suns just drafted a guy who looks tailor-made for the power forward position in Marquese Chriss.
So what is Dragan Bender?
We don't know, yet. Maybe none of the above. Maybe all of the above.
"I am playing 3 and 4 with this team," Bender said last weekend. "It suits me a lot. I played basically the same role with Maccabi, but with this team over here I have the ball a lot more in my hands. I can create more. I love it."
The kid is still just 18 years old. He won't be 19 until just before Thanksgiving. He's tall, talented, aggressive and still learning the American game.
"It's a different court, different ball," Bender said this week. "Everything is different."
We need to remember that Bender, who is averaging 8 points, 5 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 30 minutes per game in Summer League, has never played American basketball before. The pace, space and rules appear tailor made for an athletic wing, but there is still a learning curve for a new player.
"He did really well," old man Devin Booker said after game one, where Bender scored 12 points with 7 rebounds. "Better than my first performance. I think he was a little frustrated he missed a few shots. I told him I missed my first, like, ten shots. I just told him its gonna come, with the pace, and he'll figure it out."
Booker missed his first 8 three-pointers last year in Summer League, while Bender missed 6 of his 7 attempts on Saturday with that one make a lucky bank-in. He finally broke out on Wednesday with three makes from beyond the arc.
If you watch this video, you'll see some nice scores where he was the initiator as well as some plays where he opportunistically cut to the basket for finishes in the paint.
After that, Bender has taken a back seat to other Suns players who have stepped up their game. He hasn't hardly taken a shot inside the three point line as he sits on the perimeter at the small forward position trying to help space the floor while Chriss, Alan Williams, Booker and even Tyler Ulis get into the paint for scores.
But that doesn't mean he's been entirely disappointing in his NBA debut. On the contrary, Bender has wowed a lot of basketball junkies and scouts who focus on the player rather than the box score.
Here, Jonathan Tjarks, long of Realgm.com and now contributing to a new site called "The Ringer", heaps praise on Bender despite his unimpressive stat line.
The biggest story for the Suns was the play of Dragan Bender, who stood out by how well he moved and how well he carried his weight.
A player as tall as Bender shouldn't be able to move as fluidly as he does, and his age (he doesn't turn 19 until November) belies his on-court savvy. The game was never too fast for him. He knew where the ball was supposed to go and he knows how to get to his spots. The scouts and executives in attendance came away raving about him.
Bender, who has wing talent with the size to play center, gives an offense almost unlimited flexibility.
He can pair as easily with Alex Len as he can with Chriss, and he gives the Suns a ton of options in their frontcourt going forward. You never want to overreact to a limited sample size against substandard competition, but Bender was the most impressive rookie I saw in Vegas.
Someone posting a mere 8 points and 5 rebounds per game is the most impressive rookie he saw? Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Marquese Chriss and many of the rest of the league's 60 rookies saw action over the weekend in Summer League.
How could Bender top that list?
It's all about a player's ability to do something he's not supposed to be able to do. And with Bender, that's most of his game.
When filled out with 10-20 more pounds, Bender will be able to play all three front court positions in the same game. Imagine a triple-tower lineup with Len, Bender and Chriss anchoring the offense and defense. Or, imagine a "small ball" lineup with Bender, Chriss and Warren or Tucker or even Booker able to put up threes in waves while also being able to defend on the other end.
Bender is already solid rebounder, not shy to make contact on the boards. He can face up and drive, but still needs to learn some back-to-the-basket moves. He can also shoot from distance and will pull the defender out to the three-point line to hug up on him when he's spotting up, even though blocking his high-high release point will be almost impossible.
But even more than that, Bender knows how to play basketball. He has an innate understanding of what works in the moment.
"IQ. That's what I like about the players from overseas," Booker said of Bender. "They know where to be. They make little adjustments. They don't run the play exactly how it's supposed to be run, they make little adjustments and it works out well."
Bender sees an opportunity for a back-door cut, and he takes it. He sees a need for a catch-and-shoot three, and he takes it. He sees a need to step up aggressiveness on offense and defense, and he jumps right in.
Bender won't have a single NBA position. In every game, you will see him play all three front court spots and will be a net-positive at every one of them because he can (and wants to) defend as well as score and facilitate.
That makes life so much easier for a coach, allowing him to mix and match the lineup to take advantage of the opponent.
In the meantime, let's enjoy finding out how Bender learned to speak English.