When Dragan Bender was drafted No. 4 overall in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Phoenix Suns, many applauded it, but cautioned of how the 7’1” Croatian fits a “project” label. Bender was known not only as a plus defender who could switch onto guards in a pinch, but he had a developable skill set ranging from three-point prowess to savvy passing ability when he arrived from Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Versatility has become even more valuable in today’s league, and Bender was supposed to fill that type of role in some team’s frontcourt.
The Suns completely bought into this notion by not only selecting Bender, but then trading up for the similarly versatile Marquese Chriss, using valuable draft capital from the Markieff Morris trade. The rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic were shipped out as well, and he’s looked the part of someone who would be an ideal backup to Devin Booker over in Sacramento.
Bender’s rookie campaign was derailed by a foot injury, sidelining him for half the year, but under Earl Watson, he never earned trust, as he was planted on the bench in favor of Chriss.
Things started to change, at least that’s what the former regime in Phoenix hoped, when Bender had a few scoring outbursts during Las Vegas Summer League in 2017. He was hot from the outside, which carried over into the season, albeit with major inconsistency, raising his three-point percentage by 8.9 percentage points all the way up to 36.6 percent.
However, that shooting jump has been the only real area where Bender has grown since becoming a member of the Suns organization. Sure, Bender has had different voices guiding him from Earl Watson to Jay Triano and now Igor Kokoskov in less than a year’s time, but the common concerns still seep out when Bender is on the floor: Insanely high levels of timidity while also getting in his own head.
For example, when Bender logged 36 minutes against Oklahoma City, he only took one shot attempt. That shouldn’t happen, even though Bender himself likely knows he’s always the fourth or fifth scoring option.
The lack of aggression from Bender showed through with his teammates at times, which was showcased by getting iced out of the offense. At some points last season during rough patches, Bender would raise his hand for the ball on multiple possessions but not get it thrown his way. His teammates’ lack of trust was apparent.
Fast-forwarding past an up-and-down sophomore season in which he averaged 6.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 0.6 blocks in 82 games, Bender had to show some semblance of improvement when his third chance to shine in Las Vegas Summer League arrived this past July.
Unfortunately, Bender struggled mightily within Kokoskov’s new scheme, sometimes looking dumbfounded about where to pass the ball or simply not showing enough strength to bully-down a smaller player guarding him.
The first sign of concern, at least for the possibility of Phoenix declining his $5.9 million team option for 2019-20, began to show itself.
Bender was even talked about as one of the worst players at the entire event. Yeah, not good at all for a former top-five selection when most of the competitors won’t have NBA contracts or see any rotation minutes outside of Las Vegas.
In 111 minutes over five games, Bender averaged 6.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists (negative AST/TO ratio) and 0.4 blocks with shooting splits of 37.1/33.3/0. You read that right: Bender didn’t even attempt a single free throw in Summer League. Bender even had five-times more turnovers than assists, finishing with 11.
Bender then had one more true shot to prove his worth during preseason. He won the battle with Chriss and remains in Phoenix, but the realization might be that both just are not players who can contribute to winning basketball. McDonough surviving the blowback from the 2016 draft was surprising, but looking back, it’s almost impossible to make it through clean when Chriss and Tyler Ulis are no longer on the roster, while Bender’s option looks likely to be declined.
As we just witnessed over the past 10 days, Bender did nothing to prove why new interim general manager — and likely official hire soon enough — James Jones, should keep him around.
From a pure numbers standpoint, Bender regressed, as he amassed averages of 3.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2 assists and 0.8 blocks on 22.7/14.3/77.7 shooting splits.
And if you combine both Summer League and preseason together for Bender, the results are not encouraging to say the least: 5.2 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 0.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, 2.3 fouls, 1.9 turnovers in 19.6 minutes per game on 31.6/25.7/77.7 splits.
The warning signs really should have been flashing for me this time last year, though. After 2017 Media Day, former General Manager Ryan McDonough admitted to Bright Side Of The Sun that Bender’s rapid acceleration up the international ranks stunted his growth.
“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,” McDonough said. “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.”
Bender did do well for himself in the aforementioned 2017 Summer League, but he rode the bench for Croatia during EuroBasket.
The last push to hopefully rehabilitate Bender’s career was the hiring of Kokoskov, whose excellent player-development track record and international familiarity boded well. Kokoskov even hired one of Bender’s former Maccabi Tel Aviv teammates, Devin Smith, onto their staff.
At the moment, with just under three weeks to decide whether Bender is worth his $5.9 million option for the 2019-20 season, it’s a time of reflection, really. The former regime put a lot of eggs in the basket of at least one, if not both, of Bender and Chriss to develop into long-term frontcourt answers. Instead, one already had the plug pulled on him being shipped out to Houston while the other is on life support trying to survive.
It’s a situation eerily familiar to what Mario Hezonja just went through in Orlando. Under a prior leadership group, Hezonja was selected in hopes of forming a dynamic trio with Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo. Well, none of those players are left standing now, while the Magic are resetting around the likes of Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba.
During the McDonough era, swings and misses came on Alex Len, Chriss, and now add Bender to the list of recent lottery picks who failed in the Valley.
After patience was shown his way since the beginning, almost all of what plagues Bender is his own doing. Once that happens to a player, especially one who seems to be defeated easily mentally when his first shot or pass goes awry, that’s when you pack up the bags and admit defeat.
After trading up for Mikal Bridges on draft night — McDonough said right afterwards he was more a 3-4 than a 2-3 — and sliding T.J. Warren up a position, the writing is on the wall for the Suns positioning themselves to move on from Bender soon.
If Bender’s option is declined, which seems almost a lock at this point unless something drastic happens over the next week, the Suns would have an estimated $40.4 million in cap space for next summer after also stretching the final year of Ryan Anderson’s contract.
Luckily for the Suns, they were able to get some more lottery luck the past two years hauling in Josh Jackson, Deandre Ayton and Bridges. If not for that, McDonough’s historically bad class from 2016 would have torpedoed this rebuild before it got off the ground.
I’ve defended the soon-to-be 21 year old often on various platforms, but the time has come to sail off Bender Island, as even the team itself seems ready to say goodbye already after his third season.