Anticipation for seeing what Dragan Bender could do live at Summer League against
NBA "professional" competition was high to say the least. For weeks after the draft, members of the Suns front office and coaching staff were lauding Bender's ability to handle the ball, slide his feet, and play-make despite his gargantuan 7-foot-1 frame. Most outsiders pegged Bender as the ideal four/five big man in today's NBA -- a unicorn within the realms of Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns due to his stature, length, mobility, and shooting ability. Yet, the Suns have stuck to their guns up to this point, claiming that Bender projects more as a three/four.
"I see [Bender] as more of a three/four. You know, with his seven-foot frame, he can really handle that ball. He's long, he can shoot the three, he's got skills coming off of ball screens. So, he'll do nice some things on both ends of the floor," Coach Nate Bjorkgren told Bright Side before the team departed for Vegas.
I was skeptical that Bender could really translate as a three at the NBA level, but to my surprise, things didn't go all too terribly. There were moments of clunkiness, sure, but for the most part, Bender held his own on the wing and it is not out of the question that he will be able to develop into a hellacious matchup for teams that elect to play small-ball.
Take for example this sequence where Bender uses his size to whisk away any chance the defender has at contesting this semi-runner from the free throw line:
The initial attacking dribbles to get into the lane are not as explosive as you would like, but Bender covers a lot of ground with them, and was able to rise up into proper shooting motion in a controlled manner. ALTHOUGH BENDER IS FAR FROM KEVIN DURANT, this is a big reason why Durant is virtually unguardable if he is able to snake by a defender off the dribble. Even the most tenacious of wing defenders are unable to contend with a 7-foot ball-handler with the capability of planting his feet and rising up on a whim.
Durant is an all-time scorer because he executes this kind of action with a certain kind of ferocity, explosiveness, and grace. If Bender can harness even 50 percent of those traits while making this move on a consistent basis, he will be a tough match up for anyone.
I mean ... Yikes.
The thing that most stood out to me about Bender's game was his willingness to lead the fastbreak whenever he was given the chance -- especially during the first couple of Suns Summer League tilts. Bender would snag a board at its apex and then push the ball up the court swiftly a la Draymond Green.
The ability for a big man to grab and go is an unheralded resource that often gets overlooked for being a substantial component of any successful fastbreak. The reason why Golden State was so lethal in the open court last season was because Green could grab a rebound and the lead the break while being flanked by two of the best shooters of all time. Bender could utilize his handle, size, and quicks to develop into a similar weapon for the Suns over time.
We saw glimpses of this development in Vegas, with Bender galloping his way to the basket for nifty lay ins or foul calls:
Bender doesn't move at the speed of light here, but he showcases a deceptive hesitation game, and was able to manipulate the pick to get into the lane and finish over the smaller defender. That is a constant theme for Bender's game: Any shortcomings that may arise can be compensated thanks to his unique length for his position. There is some credence to the thought that Bender may have been better off being only 6-foot-10 rather than a true 7-footer (his perimeter game would feel more natural), but patience should still be in order. He undoubtedly is still growing into his body.
Another desired trait for any wing is the quick-twitched ability to attack a close out and slide into the lane to either create for yourself or a teammate. Bender showed a quicker than expected first step in Vegas, and made things happen along the baseline when a defender tried to stifle a 3-point attempt:
Though the finishing aspect of that play was far from pretty, it is encouraging to see that Bender has a plan with what he wants to do in the given situation. Making a quick decision is an underrated skill for any athlete, and Bender is at his best when he plays without thought and relies on his instincts. I will guess that his finishing will become more lethal over time (the dude was the youngest player in the draft after all), and he will have a head start on other prospects because of his wingspan.
Overall, there was a lot to like about Bender's showing in Vegas. The feeling I got while doing a retrospective look at his play is that the national media were entirely more impressed than the local consensus; The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks even called him the "most impressive rookie" that he saw in Vegas. Locally, I believe expectations may have been a little bit too ambitious, and that could have left the fan base feeling a bit underwhelmed.
With that said, Bender may not have imposed his will on the box score during Summer League, but there a ton of subtle nuances that will translate to success at the NBA level. The coaching staff glows about his skill set and work ethic, and I am anxious to watch his game grow right before our eyes.
*All videos that appear in this article are snippets from the "FreeDawkins" YouTube page. You can watch Bender's and other player's highlights videos here.