The Phoenix Suns drafted Dragan Bender fourth overall in 2016, knowing full well he would be a project. As the youngest player in the NBA last year and one adjusting to a different style of basketball than what he was accustomed to in Europe, Bender’s game had rawness for days. The situation didn’t get any better when surgery to remove a bone spur in his right ankle cost him close to two months just as he looked to be catching his rhythm in late January/early February.
Still, Bender did enough this season to keep fresh in the minds of Suns fans just why he could be a very special player in a few years’ time.
(Note: Deadpoolio’s grading system will differ slightly from the norm. The conversion table needed to decipher the system used here can be found...in your imagination.)
The offensive end of the floor was not one of Bender’s strong suits this season. He averaged only 3.4 points per game — not unusual for a project rookie — but shot 35.4 percent from the field and just 27.7 percent from behind the 3-point line, where 62.7 percent of his field goal attempts came from last season.
One positive to point to despite those percentages would have to be his game closer to the basket. He actually looked very comfortable inside the 3-point arc, where he went 29 of 60 for a 48.3-percent average. According to basketball-reference.com, Bender shot 57.6 percent from 0-3 feet, 50 percent from 3-10 feet, and 66.7 percent from 10-16 feet, but those three ranges only constituted 28.6 percent of his overall looks. Once he stepped beyond those ranges, his percentages fell off a cliff.
But probably the worst part of his shooting this season had to be his performance from the free throw line, where he was just 4 of 11 (36.4 percent). That is the worst free throw percentage by a Sun with at least 10 attempts in over 30 years. In fact, of players with at least 41 games played in a season, Bender
- made the fewest free throws of any Suns player ever
- made the second-fewest free throws of any NBA rookie ever (Shane Heal, 3)
- tied for 19th-fewest made free throws by anyone in NBA history
With all that in mind, one thing is clear: Bender did not attempt enough free throws this year. A percentage as low as Bender’s wouldn’t seem to argue for him shooting more, but with a mere 11 attempts, it is difficult to draw any reliable conclusions from the data but one. Bender drew a shooting foul once every 114.8 minutes last season, and that is far too few for a player with his skill set who shot as well as he did from 16 feet in.
No question Bender must improve his shot (and I will continue to harp on his shooting form until he either changes it or proves me wrong), but the coaching staff needs to do a better job of involving him in the offense. He proved capable going towards the basket despite his slight frame and could have used a few more looks closer to the hoop to build his confidence out to the arc. Instead, they glued a sub-.300 3-point shooter to the arc and let him bomb away. For a staff that talks about putting players in positions to succeed, spot-up 3-point shooter was anything but for Bender.
Hopefully, both the coaching staff and Bender will learn from this past season and be better for it in 2017-18.
Grade: A brick
Bender’s versatility as a defender was one of his most lauded attributes coming out of the draft. Here was a 7’1 player who could both defend the rim and move his feet well enough to stay in front of most guards on switches. It was a major factor in why Phoenix took him so high, and while his rookie campaign was limited by injury, he provided glimpses into his tantalizing potential on that end of the floor.
Bender only averaged 13.3 minutes over his 43 games played, but with Phoenix running him at everything from small forward to center, he got a fair number of chances to display his defensive flexibility. He averaged 0.5 blocks and 0.2 steals per game, but those numbers jumped to 1.4 blocks and 0.6 steals per 36 minutes. The steals number could be better, but his blocks per 36 was tied with Marquese Chriss and behind only Alex Len (2.3) and Alan Williams (1.6) on the team.
When it came to forcing misses, only Len (-8.8 percentage point differential) did a better job for the Suns of holding opponents below their average within six feet of the basket than Bender (-7.6) according to NBA.com, and only Len and Jared Dudley were better within 10 feet than Bender (-4.7 percentage point differential). Overall, Bender was fourth best on the team at defending inside the 3-point line (-3.5 percentage point differential) but wasn’t as successful defending the 3-point line, where he allowed opponents to shoot 3.8 percentage points higher than their average. Yet as a whole, he forced opponents to shoot 1.5 percentage points worse than their average — one of only six Suns on the end-of-season roster with a negative opponent field goal percentage differential.
Bender also ranked first on the team per 36 minutes in contesting 3-point shots (5.5 per game) and was second to Len in total shots contested per 36 minutes (16.1).
A variety of different defensive assignments were thrown at Bender this season, and he handled it as well as could be hoped. He is already a plus defender at this early stage of his career, using his length to make looks difficult and showing a knack for coming from behind for blocks. And he proved his foot speed can adequately keep him in front of most perimeter players at the NBA level — at least for short stretches. For his first taste of NBA action, he held his own on this end of the floor and should only improve as he gains experience.
Grade: A majestic eagle silhouette swooping down on unsuspecting prey
It is a difficult task to show one’s versatility when averaging 13 minutes a game, but throughout the season, he provided flashes of what’s hopefully to come.
Bender showed that he can pose a threat on offense from close, medium, and long range (although the consistency of that threat dropped off as he ventured farther from the hoop). His ability to put the ball on the floor, run the court, and even lead the fastbreak as a 7’1 player was also impressive and kept defenders on their toes. And while his assist numbers didn’t necessarily bear this out, he showed a comfort in moving the ball in half court sets, with it seldom sticking in his hands (occasionally to a fault). His height, which allowed him to see over the top of defenses, aided him here, too.
Defensively, he fit well in whatever lineup Earl Watson used, whether it was a small lineup with him at center or a big lineup alongside Len, Chriss, and/or Tyson Chandler. His ability to move his feet along the perimeter left more than one guard second guessing that mismatch over the course of the year, and he did not shy away from contact inside the paint — a mentality that should help him on both ends of the court once he gets stronger.
He’s still too young to expect him to impact the game like an Andrei Kirilenko, but he did nothing this season to suggest he won’t develop into a player who poses myriad dangers to opponents in the near future.
Grade: Closed Swiss Army knife
Had he been healthy all season, it is possible Bender’s development would have benefited much the same way Chriss’ did as the year wore on. Regardless, his abbreviated season at least proved the pre-draft hype around Bender’s potential wasn’t misplaced.
For a player as young as Bender, you couldn’t fairly expect game-to-game impact this early in his career, so judging him by his stats would be unfair. Rather, a general trend towards consistency, a honing of his multitude of skills, and an increased comfort level with the NBA game were more reasonable expectations. Bender made inroads on all three, and should his health concerns be nothing more than a blip, the next couple seasons in his development should be exciting for fans to watch.
Final Grade: Gingerbread man with his right foot snapped off
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Unfortunate Gingerbread Man