It’s hard to imagine a 19-year-old is already entering his second season, and won’t turn 20 until November. This is the life of Dragan Bender, who has advanced his way through international levels at a feverish pace before ever entering the 2016 draft.
What intrigued not only Phoenix but many other NBA scouts before the draft was how versatile Bender was, including an innate ability to become a playmaker at 7-feet tall. The modernity of the league now requires versatility at the top, as far as requirements to be a regular rotation player. Bender has this in spades, which led to general manager Ryan McDonough and Co. selecting him with the No. 4 pick.
However, as McDonough mentioned after selecting Bender and even earlier this summer, he is still raw and one of the youngest players in the NBA. This will be a process of bringing Bender along, but the benefits upon unlocking such potential could be crucial if the Suns want to achieve their first championship in franchise history.
‘Aggressiveness’ continues to be a theme with Bender heading into his sophomore season. Not only does McDonough mention it, but on Wednesday, head coach Earl Watson expects him to do so while pushing the pace as a playmaker, too.
We saw an early preview of what to expect with Bender during Las Vegas Summer League. The 19-year-old Croatian showed off unique passing traits while showing lateral speed as a rim protector. This included a couple outbursts that showed off Bender’s perimeter stroke, specifically against Utah, where he was scorching hot from the outside.
When I spoke with McDonough on Media Day about Bender’s EuroBasket performance, here was his full response:
"I was in Romania for group play. I thought Dragan looked good defensively. I thought in a lot of ways he looked like he did for us last year. You could see his length and athleticism. His ability to guard multiple positions defensively. I haven't looked at the numbers, but he blocked a lot of shots in the minutes he played. If I had to guess, he was one of the per minute leaders in blocks. Offensively, I wish he were a little more aggressive. We talked to him about that. Croatia was a little bit unique in that they ran almost like an NBA style system where they had two stars on their team, Bojan Bogdanovic and Dario Saric. They fed those guys and ran a lot through those guys.
I thought overall he played okay. I think anytime you're 19 years old playing for your national team for the first time, that's a big deal, and that's a unique opportunity. So, more than anything, we're happy that he got that high-level experience, playing against Spain in Pau and Marc Gasol, playing a good Russian team in the round of 16. We think that will all be beneficial.
One of the things that's been a challenge with Dragan is that he skipped some steps in his career. Going to Israel at 16 years old playing on Maccabi Tel Aviv at 18 years old. So, I think in some ways, that stunted his development. We want to make sure we're accelerating the development curve. That's why we had him playing Summer League, then go right to Croatia.
He's stronger. He's more confident. And I think the biggest change you'll see, I hope the biggest change you'll see with him, he's a good playmaker. He's a good passer. That's what he likes to do. He sees the floor well. So, we'll put the ball more in his hands more to make plays offensively, and then if he gets the defensive rebound, picks up a loose ball, we encourage him to push it up and find guys. I think and hope, in time, he'll become pretty good at that."
What stood out from that was McDonough citing how Bender’s early rise might have led to him being where he is at currently. He has not really had a chance to fully showcase his full arsenal of skills yet, even with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Also, at EuroBasket, Croatia played through Bogdanovic and Saric, as mentioned, so Bender did not get the expected workload from Phoenix’s point of view.
Could that have stunted his growth before entering the draft? Possibly.
Luckily, they now have training camp and preseason to see what they have now in Bender. I would expect much of the same when they begin games, which should help allow one of their hopeful cornerstones to build confidence in his role.
With Bender, everyone is in his corner throughout the organization, so now it’s time for him to turn it on and take that aggressive approach throughout the regular season and eventually playoff matchups.
"Dragan we look to be more aggressive. Stay healthy obviously,” Watson said. “Take the ball off the rebound and push it in transition and make plays."
Phoenix, who ranked second in pace last season, wants to go even faster now so I would expect to see Bender get his fair share of playing time entering his true rookie season in many people eyes. A more up-tempo pace favors players like Marquese Chriss and Bender to see regular rotation minutes over Tyson Chandler and Alex Len, so it will be interesting to see how lineups come together prior to October 18 against Portland.
As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi told me recently on a podcast, you have to take the long view with Bender, and that’s how they are treating it thus far. EuroBasket was not the performance many expected from Bender, but it gives him valuable experience heading into the season already banging down low against the Gasol brothers, for example.
They shielded Bender last season from many post-up type opportunities due to his slender frame. Last season, he truly looked like a high schooler, but after a year in a professional strength and conditioning program, he’s looking much more built out. Entering year two, expect a well-rounded showing from Bender, allowing him to resemble his confident game overseas prior to the pre-draft process.
As Watson said on Wednesday, a player as young as Bender revolves around a mindset change. He was gaining confidence in Summer League, and now they plan to build on that.
"It's just a mind shift. As long as we give him confidence,” Watson said. “I tell these guys all the time, an NBA coach telling me at 19 to 20 to be over aggressive and shoot the ball. Every time touch it being aggressive attacking the rim. So, the opportunity is there. He just needs to take it upon himself and do it."
The Suns have given Bender the keys to the ignition, now all he has to do is start it and take off. Phoenix views this member of #TheTimeline as a unicorn-type big man. Once he reaches is full potential, he could become a rare commodity never really seen much outside of Nikola Jokic in Denver.
Ball movement will be at a premium heading into Watson’s second official season as head coach, and Bender will play a major role in helping fix that aspect, including their offense as a whole. They hope that this much playing time will help accelerate that development curve Bender is currently on to a trajectory they hope builds up a title contending roster.