Throughout his second season in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, really his first seeing consistent starter-like minutes, many have been clamoring for Dragan Bender to finally break out of his premade shell offensively.
Not only have media and fans been wondering why Bender seems timid but so has some of his teammates openly. As Troy Daniels told AZCentral’s Scott Bordow almost two months ago in Memphis, they are expecting him to be aggressive especially when players such as Devin Booker and T.J. Warren are inactive.
“Nobody is going to say anything if he takes 10 shots,” Daniels said. “We want you to be aggressive. When you take two shots, it’s tough for us to win.”
When scrolling through Bender’s numbers this season, Daniels’ comments stand out. What should come as no surprise, but when 2016’s No. 4 overall pick is actually assertive he does well out there.
In February, Bender had a stretch where he averaged 15.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists while attempting 10.4 shots on average. This was a time where we were beginning to cement him as a long-term piece while his fellow sophomore big man Marquese Chriss would be the one shown the proverbial door this summer.
However, after a quick 5-game blip where Bender seemed to capitalize off of his teammates’ words of advice, he slowly crawled back into his shell of passing the ball back right after he gets it.
That question of deciding between Chriss and Bender has flipped in that amount of time.
This has to leave general manager Ryan McDonough in a bind as he has advertised aggressive moves all the summer. It’s likely one of his two top 8 picks in 2016 is gone by August with the incoming roster overhaul.
The inconsistencies with Bender are maddening because he’s had 6 outings where he shoots 10+ times but also 10 of attempting two or less. It’s so hard to judge a player and his potential when he is so passive on one end of the floor to his own fault.
Per Second Spectrum tracking data on passes (stats.nba.com), this is backed up because of Bender being dead last in terms of time spent with the basketball itself.
One thing that I continue to point back towards from my discussion with the Suns’ newest prized rookie, Josh Jackson, is how he gained the trust of his new teammates. He showed them not only in practice, but quickly in games that if the likes of Tyler Ulis, Elfrid Payton, and Devin Booker pass it they will definitely keep feeding me looks.
Jackson has taken the bull by the horns since Jay Triano gave him a DNP on January 2 and singlehandedly boosted his first season into likely All-Rookie honors tirelessly working on improving his two-way profile.
“The thing as a rookie you’ve got to do is gain trust,” Jackson told me in our exclusive sit-down earlier this month on Locked On Suns. “You’re not going to be able to come in and shoot 15-20 times as a rookie if your teammates don’t trust you and they don’t really know ‘Alright, is this a guy we can trust here to do that?’”
Have Bender’s teammates even been able to answer that question? Do Bender’s teammates trust him to do anything with the ball other than passing it right back or shoot a three-pointer? Honestly, probably not and that’s very worrisome in my mind.
It only took four games after the trade deadline for Payton to quickly ice Bender out of the offensive flow once he realized that he does nothing with the looks set up for him.
Take a gander at how Bender has performed not only over his last 5 games, but also since the All-Star Break:
Last 5: 5.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2 assists in 30.5 minutes on 28.6 FG%, 20.8% on 3s
Last 15: 5.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists in 30.4 minutes on 31.9 FG%, 30.6% on 3s
Another depressing number for the pro-Bender crowd is how allergic he is to driving toward the rim still. He not only isn’t drawing contact but as a 7-footer takes less than two drives per game while shooting less than 50% of the time in those situations throughout this season at 0.8 FGA.
Since the Suns’ return from their All-Star Weekend, Bender is turning the ball over more than he is making shots on drives. That’s awful, and if he can’t take incremental jumps in development this summer athletically will quickly cap his predraft ceiling many spoke of.
Also, one more note that’s not good at all. For players logging 30+ minutes over the past month, Bender is the only one doing less with the most amount of time, in terms of producing numbers on the box score. Yikes.
Taking a quick advanced stats dive also sees no progress from the Suns’ No. 4 pick in 2016. Bender currently possesses a paltry 6.5 PER (player efficiency rating) and a negative win share with -.0.3.
Compared to last season where he could barely crack the rotation with Earl Watson, seeing no improvement even on numbers like VORP (value above replacement player) also gives off another warning sign with Bender’s overall development.
After a two-week stretch last month, how did we end up back in this situation with even more confidence in it? I keep coming back to Bender’s psyche with his own confidence.
Right now, Bender is shooting 87%, I repeat 87% of his shots from 16 feet and out through 74 games. If you want to stretch it past the three-point line Bender tends to stand near often, he’s still attempting way over 50% (62.7!!) of his total shots from out there.
I don’t care how good you even are from the outside, that needs to change if you’re a frontcourt player who was taken in the top five of a draft.
Sure, the roster much like it is for Booker and Jackson at the moment isn’t tailormade to Bender’s strengths but at least the latter is showing consistent flashes of progression and consistency.
Bender has yet to prove it to me or others one bit.
Unless I see significant strides taken in 2018-2019, Bender’s ceiling looks capped already even at age 20. He’s a player much like Boris Diaw who will make the smart play and give you moments on defense, but will that be all?
He has no value on the floor outside of being a secondary passer and spot-up three-point shooter right now. His teammates seem to be getting tired of his shyness and complacency on offense, especially when their two top scorers have been out with plenty to go around.
It’s not only worrisome how Bender’s offensive profile hasn’t changed through 117 career games, but also how much his body language is showing through lately.
Yesterday against Orlando, far too many times did I see Bender put his head down and trot the other way with his shoulders slumped after making a bad play. Is he hitting the proverbial wall or what’s happening?
That’s a question that Bender will need to find the answer to himself because at the moment he looks on his way to being out of the league in a few years unless he finds an identity fast.
His two-way profile isn’t developing, it’s stagnating.
This is a very important summer for not only Bender but Chriss as well. These two were supposed to be taking consistent steps forward in Year 2, but it’s been the opposite marred by inconsistent performances.
For both, and especially Bender over the last 5 weeks, looks the part of a bust compared to a long-term piece of the puzzle.
It’s time to do some soul-searching this summer if Bender wants to prove to his teammates that he belongs on this level.