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Solidifying future roles for Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss needs to happen now

After two seasons together developing with the Suns, Bender should continue to be built as a versatile stretch 4 while Chriss shall begin transitioning towards a post-heavy attack.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

After being the first team to select two players at the same position in the lottery since Timberwolves general manager David Kahn puzzlingly went with point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with consecutive picks in the top six, seven years later the Phoenix Suns pulled off a similar maneuver.

Not only did Suns general manager Ryan McDonough draft Dragan Bender at No. 4, but he moved back into the No. 8 slot to obtain a hyperactive big with potential named Marquese Chriss.

However, after two seasons together playing the same position, it’s time for Phoenix to make a firm decision on what to do with these 20-year-old big men. Whether it is moving on from one or keeping both for developmental purposes this summer (and bringing in a coaching staff that can develop them), a route has to be chosen by the Suns’ front office.

When examining how they played together, it didn’t go well outside of the rare flashes seen from time to time. After frustrating results thus far, it’s likely we see Phoenix pull the plug on their dream of these two prospects ever starting together.

The Bender/Chriss pairing only played 325 minutes in 38 games (around 8.5 mpg), which pretty much tells you all you need to know. Marred by inconsistent play and rarely ever producing quality outings simultaneously, we only saw this duo as a starting frontcourt pairing on nine occasions.

From an advanced metrics perspective, the two-man lineups of Bender and Chriss equated to one of the worst shooting pairings in the NBA alongside an inability to ever create offense by themselves. It showed with paltry numbers in effective field goal percentage and overall net ratings, which tallied up to a 46.7 eFG% (effective field goal percentage) alongside an equally concerning NetRtg (net rating) of -17.9.

It’s likely at this point Phoenix chooses one of two avenues with this still very raw pairing: Trade one as a chip in a bigger deal to acquire talent or keep both through the remainder of their contracts and then deciding on who to keep at that point. Last October, Phoenix picked up each of their team options through next season, which includes one in 2019-20 as well.

At that point in time, Bender and Chriss would still only be 23 heading into their second deals, but odds are, as mentioned, Phoenix will end up likely having to decide which one to prioritize in developing very soon.

Before we dive in, here’s an advanced stats head-to-head on how both fared this past season:

RPM (Real Plus-Minus): Bender = -3.76, Chriss = -1.81

VORP (Value Above Replacement Player): Bender = -0.4, Chriss = 0

TS% (True Shooting Percentage): Bender = 52.4%, Chriss = 50.9%

PER (Player Efficiency Rating): Bender = 7.1, Chriss = 11.1

Below, I’m going to analyze how both of these bigs could go in terms of possible ceiling outcomes, including how each needs to be utilized by this new coaching staff.

Dragan Bender

Even though there were plenty of moments that made Bender look every bit the part of someone who was broken mentally in the last half of the season, he’s still a prospect who needs more seasoning. Compared to his injury-riddled rookie season where he only played 574 minutes, it jumped all the way up to 2,069.

Throughout his entire basketball career, Bender had never seen that amount of time logged on the court. It’s entirely possible this was the year where he hit his proverbial “rookie wall”, which resulted in plenty of jump shots that immediately went flat upon release.

Speaking of his 3s, he became only the eighth player standing 7’ or higher to attempt 300+ in a season (the others are Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis, Brook Lopez, Frank Kaminsky, Lauri Markkanen, Marc Gasol, Andrea Bargnani, and Spencer Hawes). However, for Bender, that’s not exactly something to be proud of because 65.5% of all his shots were from beyond the arc. That shows not only passiveness but a lack of progress of trying to create for himself from 20 feet in.

Confidence is a big part of his game, which was easy to tell within the first 2-3 minutes he appeared each time out whether he would produce or not.

At 7’1” with a defensive profile who can hit +35% on three-pointers, Bender again is a valuable archetype that needs to be continuously molded.

His shooting value was also boosted in his sophomore campaign as he vastly improved upon his looks from the corners. Bender was third on the team behind Troy Daniels and Devin Booker for most prolific shooters from beyond the arc in those two spots at 37.3% compared to Chriss’ major regression at 24.6%.

The right coaching staff, in a similar cloth to Chriss, will need to tap into Bender’s high-end value. It seems as if Bender will need a coach like Gregg Popovich, as in a teacher who sticks to the process. (Sure sounds like Utah’s Igor Kokoskov would be an ideal candidate here.)

There is still some slim hope of him becoming a Nikola Jokic type of player once he matures into his frame but it’s looking destined for Bender to be a playmaking stretch 4 who can provide frontcourt versatility on defense. And two comparisons I keep circling back towards are Nikola Mirotic and Boris Diaw for possible ceiling outcomes.

I speak on Mirotic and Diaw, because these two are savvy players that Bender has small traits of.

However, there is one major factor that can’t go ignored as to how Bender might not reach these two. It is him still being rather allergic to contact, including an awful free throw rate of 10.5% for someone his size.

This needs to become Bender’s priority this summer: lift a ton of weights and try to be able to do other things outside of spot-up 3s.

Like Mirotic, Bender is also an above-average spot-up shooter and an ever-improving rebounder. We saw Mirotic’s defense improve immediately alongside Anthony Davis and a winning situation once he was traded to New Orleans because he actually started trying harder in that aspect.

Similarly to Diaw, Bender has the passing ability that is desired out of bigs in today’s modern NBA. Although Diaw was more post-oriented on offense, there were plenty of others who were set up by his ability to read defenses like a point guard. Bender isn’t there yet at 20, but I wonder what he could become this time five years from now.

Bender, unlike his draft partner from 2016, seems heading down the avenue of one who’s going to stay on the perimeter often but make a greater impact as a playmaker and defender once he’s able to drilled in confidence and strength as he main areas of improvement.

Marquese Chriss

Chriss is such an interesting case study, because he’s only been playing basketball for 8 or 9 years. He’s still so raw in terms of moves on the floor, but his athleticism still pops in flashes that can’t be ignored.

The No. 8 pick in the 2016 Draft had some moments in opposite ends of the spectrum often this past season. In games against Atlanta and Golden State, he displayed an array of skills that weren’t seen often, but then they would disappear for weeks on in for whatever reason.

Just like Bender, Chriss is maddeningly inconsistent. That is what makes it so tough for the Suns’ front office, because they never have really put it together for consistent stretches to prove their value and supposed jumps in improvement.

There was also a bad moment for Chriss where he was suspended in February for one game after a postgame verbal altercation with an assistant coach. Chriss did improve his on-court emotions as the season wore on, much like fellow teammate Josh Jackson, which was a progression there that plagued him throughout most of his first two seasons.

Compared to Bender as well, Chriss was the one who improved when he saw more playing time in March and April. Bender stagnated while Chriss took advantage of his extra minutes which saw him improve his ability to stay out of foul trouble tenfold. Back in December, Chriss could barely stay on the floor for 15 minutes with fouls, but in April he was steadily being active for 30+ minutes.

What I hope they told Chriss to do this summer was focus more on adding strength to his frame as they now pull the trigger on fully committing to him as a center in the mold of a Tristan Thompson or Amir Johnson but with way more upside.

Why? Well, I think Chriss looked way more like a 5 this year than a 4, and it was backed up by his late-season barrage of attacking the rim and finishing through contact. Also, it was very rare, but he was improving as a passer, too.

In Cleveland, Thompson early on displayed amazing versatility as a rim protector and being able to spot check wings from time to time. However, Chriss should be able to provide shooting capabilities Thompson never could add into his arsenal. He is a non-factor from outside of 10 feet, while Chriss could turn into a three-level scorer, though odds are slim of that high-end percentile.

This 20-year-old big man has Thompson and many other bigs around the league beat in pure athleticism. He can soar in out of nowhere for blocks and be a consistent lob threat on screen-and-roll opportunities.

Also, when comparing these two (Thompson’s first two seasons) from an advanced metrics standpoint, they were nearly identical as far as steal and block percentages go so that archetype to build upon might actually have some legs.

Even if they draft someone like Deandre Ayton or sign a free agent, Chriss should still begin this transition over into a more aggressive attack in the post. He’s built to utilize his advantages on slower-footed bigs in an energy type of role for 20-25 minutes a night. And if he reaches his ceiling, that’s someone who will change games for you down the line.

Believing Chriss ends up in the realm of small-ball centers such as Thompson and Amir Johnson isn’t far-fetched for me. In this role compared to the one he has had his first two seasons in Phoenix, it could really go a long way in helping McDonough’s high-upside gamble pay off.

For both Bender and Chriss, these next few months are quite possibly the most important of their basketball careers. They need to improve on both ends as they have been graded side-by-side since 2016.

This is why finding this next head coach — which is planning to hopefully be one who lasts at least through the majority of their young cores’ primes — is important because they need to hit this one out of the park from a player development point of view.

Bender and Chriss showed they stagnated instead of really taking steps forward, so if the Suns could somehow land more versatile Mirotic and Thompson prototypes out of this ordeal then that’s a major win to their trajectory towards success.

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