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Dragan Bender regressing in third NBA season

The Phoenix Suns will have a difficult decision to make by end of month, whether to guarantee Bender’s 2019-20 season

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Orlando Magic v Phoenix Suns Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s difficult to imagine a regression from last season’s 38% shooting and 9.3% rebound rate, but 7’1” former international phenom Dragan Bender has so far managed to do it.

In 2016, the Suns selected the 18 year old Dragan Bender with the #4 overall pick. It wasn’t an overdraft or a “reach”. Bender and his tantalizing skillset had been ranked inside the Top-5 of the 2016 Draft for than a year, sometimes as high as #1 overall.

But his NBA career has been less than tantalizing.

Last year, Bender disappointed many (most) (okay, all) with just 6.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game playing the second-most minutes on the entire team. He played all 82 games, with a consistent 25 minutes per game.

Bender profiles as the ideal modern NBA forward with a 7’3” wingspan, quick feet, good shooting form (37% last year on threes), passing ability (1.6 assists per game last year) and work ethic.

Some hoped that the hiring of Igor Kokoskov would unlock Bender’s potential.

“He’s not a kid anymore,” Kokoskov said on Media Day about Bender’s third NBA season, even though Bender won’t turn 21 until mid-November.

The Suns had even made room for Bender to grow, trading away Marquese Chriss and giving Bender the clear backup power forward job behind newly-acquiring Ryan Anderson.

But Bender has failed to step up.

In Summer League under Igor, Bender was a dud. He produced only 6.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game with 37% shooting after “coming out” a summer ago with 14.2 points and 6 rebounds in 2017’s Summer League.

And now as we approach games that matter, Bender has been nothing short of terrible in Saturday’s Open Scrimmage and Monday’s first preseason game.

On Monday, Bender airballed at least two of his five three-point misses, grabbed only two rebounds and was a target on defense for the Kings young bigs.

Kokoskov was asked about Bender after Monday’s game and he went on a fairly long, blunt riff about what’s ailing Bender.

“He has to play the game,” Igor said. “We can’t play the game for him. I wouldn’t buy into him missing shots, there’s so many other areas that he can help this team, when it comes to defensive stops, presence, rebounding. Help us with those things.”

Bender’s calling card is having a whole toolkit full of talent. He can shoot from long range. He can dribble and pass. He can block shots. He can slide his feet on defense.

“I think his versatility can work against him,” Igor explained. “He can do everything a little bit, but nothing really [good]. This is a league of extremes. You have to be extremely good at something.”

Bender did make 37% of his 3.9 three pointers per game last year, which is above league average and was third on the Suns behind Troy Daniels (40%) and Devin Booker (38%). In theory, that can force big men out of the paint to defend him, opening up passing and driving lanes.

“We believe that he is a very good shooter,” Igor said. “And then once he can make shots, he can put it on the floor and playmake for other people.”

But as Igor said, your whole game can’t consist of one thing that’s barely above league average while everything else is terrible.

Bender was abused defensively last season, despite having the reputation of being a good defender in space as well as on help rotations. His actual performance just didn’t live up to the hopes.

In fact, quite often during last year’s second half, Bender was switched onto an island by opposing teams and ended up settling in the middle area, defending neither the jump shot nor the drive.

On Monday night, Kings coach Dave Joerger yelled more than once from the sideline at Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles to “Post him up!” and “Kick his ass!”

“The biggest challenge for him is defense,” Igor said on Bender. “He’s got to be a better defensive player. You know, he’s guarding 4s, we know it’s a small league, he’s got to contain the ball. If he’s a 5 he’s got to rebound and fight with those guys and bring more physicality.”

Bottom line is that coach Igor Kokoskov needs his players to be productive, on both ends of the court. And to bring swagger and effort at all times.

“He has to play the game,” Kokoskov said. “He’s got to step on the stage and, whatever it requires, be more upset, be more focused.”

The Suns have until the end of October to decide whether to pay Bender $5.9 million for the 2019-20 season. Currently, that figure is non-guaranteed. The Suns can either guarantee it or let Bender become a restricted free agent next summer.

“We are gonna support him as we always do,” Igor concluded. “And he has to play.”

Bender’s next chance to play is Wednesday night, against the New Zealand Breakers. If their coach is yelling at his players to kick Bender’s ass, and they succeed at doing it, well...

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