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Summer Suns: Expect a more aggressive Dragan Bender in Las Vegas

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On the second day of preparation for Summer League, last year’s No. 4 overall pick will be looked upon for more aggressive play alongside his growing point forward role.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After an injury-riddled rookie year and limited playing time because of it, Dragan Bender, last year’s top pick for the Suns, will really have his first season with more on his plate while getting extended minutes.

Not only are Suns fans anxious to see Bender take the floor in Las Vegas, but Summer League head coach Marlon Garnett, who’s in his first year in this role, has seen vast improvements from this time a year ago. A more comfortable Bender equals a more confident one, too. The next step in his development is on tap, which is paramount to the future of Phoenix’s frontcourt.

“I don’t know if you call it a jump, what’s the cliche, what a difference a year makes,” Garnett said. “Just the fact that he’s kind of been in a system. I was told that back overseas with Maccabi, they’ll just stick him in the corner and what not. The last year, even though he was hurt a little bit, just being around the practices, being around some of the veteran guys that we did have, I think gave him a little more comfortability now. Hopefully, he continues to build on that brick and that foundation and continue to just get more experience and even better.”

Laying more bricks upon Bender’s evolutionary process will be one that’s expected to take the longest out of their high draft picks, most recently Marquese Chriss and Josh Jackson, in terms of reaching his max potential. However, what I’ve been able to see is very promising in terms of him being ahead of that curve.

During practice, when media was able to watch, Bender threw an absolutely gorgeous outlet pass to Chriss right in stride for an easy transition score. Bender was also vocal and helped the lead guards where to go and set them up on slashes to the rim or swinging it out to the perimeter after suffocating the defenders inside. It’s apparent his advanced traits in this area will help the offense run smoother as the team gels together the next couple of seasons.

Before being selected by Phoenix, Bender’s passing ability was underrated due to it only being shown rarely with Maccabi Tel Aviv. As Garnett mentioned above, Bender’s role in their offense was one where he was relied upon to hit spot-up shots while being a cutter to the rim.

Now, on the NBA level, Bender is transitioning into showing off his point forward potential. Having ever growing confidence in his overall skill set will only help accelerate his process of becoming a more well-defined offensive threat.

“The next step right now, I told him just aggressive mentality,” Garnett said. “Try to get that confidence to be able to play a role at point. Catching it on the wing, jabbing a guy, and getting to the basket and use his length to dunk on somebody. Obviously, shooting the three, I think that’s going to be important for him just so he can gain his confidence. I think he’s going to be good.”

What all should we expect from Bender in his point forward role up in Vegas, though? The emphasis will be to see how he fares in transition, pushing the pace and providing open space for outside shooting. Garnett sees immense potential in this type of role for Bender, and he’s just now getting more comfortable with it while showing off elite flashes of his vision.

“Specifically, more measurable weight on grabbing the rebound and pushing, using his playmaking ability because I think he does have the potential to be that guy,” Garnett said. “I was just watching a clip yesterday from practice — he got a rebound, pushed it down the floor, defense collapsed to the paint and he kicked out to the corner to Derrick Jones Jr. Jones had a wide open shot, he didn’t take it — it’s those kinds of plays, at least we’ll start scratch the surface as like a point forward. There will be moments where we have him bring it up. If we start to get pressure and what not, we’ll adjust from there, but we’ll see how much that we can do with how many minutes we can give him just so he kind of get used to it and get his feet wet.”

In Vegas, Bender and Chriss, Phoenix’s hopeful frontcourt for the extended future, will be the veterans on the roster. While Chriss just turned 20 and Bender is still 19 until mid-November, this is a valuable leadership experience for both. Devin Booker went through a similar situation back in 2015 when he was a rookie, too.

Chriss expressed how he’s ready to step up into more of a leadership role, and Jackson said the same when we spoke to him Wednesday. They are exuding confidence and expect to be Summer League Champions once it’s all set and done in the Sin City. And with a roster with as much frontcourt court talent as the Suns have, those expectations have a good shot at being met.

“I think it’s good for both of us, and the team, just develop the young chemistry for me and (Bender) to grow as young players,” Chriss said. “Just trying to develop as much as we can to last in the NBA.”

According to multiple Vegas odds bookies, Phoenix is the co-favorite at 6-1 alongside the Los Angeles Lakers.

By the way, today's practice was filled with intensity during their team scrimmage, which Booker played on the second unit to help against Bender, Jackson, Chriss, and Jones Jr. Having Booker there was definitely a boost for everyone on the court, in terms of adding, even more, competitive fire onto it.

Booker is already displaying the leadership role he was expected to grow into with how the roster shaped up. He stayed around after practice and watched Josh Jackson continue to work on his shooting stroke from all levels of the floor. Once Jackson hit his final free throw to wrap up his individual session, Booker walked off with him.

The culture Phoenix is building has the makings of a special one, but they still have long ways to go. Head coach Earl Watson has always preached to his players about having and maintaining an intense, high motor. Thus far, it’s working wonders with their core four and the makeup of their team identity.

“I think that’s the culture of our team, that’s how Earl (Watson) wants us to play,” Chriss said of the team’s mentality they have displayed in practices this week. “I think that’s why they put us together, to build a team like that and play with intensity, fire under our bellies.”