They said man would never fly. They said the iPhone would never gain market share. They said one word could not sound like both Yanny and Laurel.
They were wrong.
Time and again, ideas are prematurely relegated to the dustbin of history after being deemed outlandish only to succeed and prove their detractors wrong. It often takes some confluence of perseverance, opportunity, and luck, but it happens.
For the Phoenix Suns, seeing it happen with project big man Dragan Bender after two seasons of less-than-inspiring basketball would be like watching the Wright brothers take flight at Kitty Hawk, and within the organization, there is real optimism new head coach Igor Kokoskov will be the man to crank the propeller.
“Talented kid. Ability to shoot a ball, big guy who can shoot a ball is just so unique,” Kokoskov said about Bender when asked at his introductory press conference last week. “He knows, there’s no secret, a long way to go. There’s so many years that he can get better. He’s still very young, but he’s dedicated, he wants to get better, and we’ll give our best and I’ll give my best to find his defining role.”
Finding Bender’s defining role has been at the forefront of the Suns’ player development strategy since he was drafted fourth overall in 2016. To date, his defining role has been as an above average 3-point shooter for a 7-footer, but that won’t cut it. Phoenix needs more than a tall spot-up shooter out of their selection of Bender, and what’s both tantalizing and frustrating is the team knows he has more to offer.
But whether Kokoskov’s offense can set loose that potential remains to be seen.
Much was made of the job he did coaching the Slovenian national team to the gold medal during EuroBasket last year, and when your team goes undefeated, credit is rightfully deserved. However, the offense Kokoskov installed relied heavily on involving his best players — Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic — in top of the arc pick-and-roll action with spacers around them. There were occasional wrinkles, but it all boiled down to standard fare any basketball observer has seen a million times before.
In fact, some plays were identical to offense the Suns ran this past season, and what did it do for Bender? He still looked like a frightened foal in his sophomore season but maybe not one still draped in placenta.
None of this should be construed as criticism of Kokoskov or the job he did with Slovenia, but any suggestion that his offense was the catalyst that transformed the Bad News Bears into EuroBasket champions is inaccurate. The catalyst was Dragic playing at peak Dragic-ness, and without that, Slovenia doesn’t win EuroBasket. Period. It’s as Kokoskov said in his press conference: talent wins.
(It’s worth noting that we don’t actually know what kind of offense Kokoskov will employ with the Suns. He said he adapts to the team he has, so the offensive game plan on display with his Slovenian team might not be indicative of what we’ll see with Suns. In his parlance, he has different ingredients to cook with in Phoenix, so who knows what he’ll whip up now that he’s graduated from NBA sous chef?)
To get an idea of what to expect from Bender in a Kokoskov-run system, one need only look to Slovenian national team member and Bender analog Anthony Randolph, another long, mobile big man. Within the offense, Randolph spent very little time involved in the pick-and-roll action (the role of human roadblock going primarily to bone-rattler Gasper Vidmar). Instead, Randolph lingered around the perimeter, spacing the floor for Dragic and Doncic while waiting for the occasional offensive opportunity to present itself.
Those opportunities did come, most prominently in a 21-point effort against Ukraine, but here is where Randolph differs from Bender. Randolph wasn’t hesitant or indecisive. Randolph didn’t settle for 3-pointers or reset to one of the stars if the shot wasn’t there. He faced up his defender. He attacked the basket. He utilized post moves at the rim. Randolph had an aggressive mindset whereas Bender has a passive one, and no offense, regardless of how many intricacies or how much misdirection it has, will compensate for a passive mentality.
Bender had five and-1 opportunities all of last season. Elfrid Payton had 11 with the Suns despite playing just 19 games. The team leaders were T.J. Warren (35), Devin Booker (32), and Alex Len (28). That’s a textbook lack of aggressiveness from Bender.
As is this: Bender had nine dunks last season despite being 7’1 and playing all 82 games. Only 13 7-footers last season had fewer dunks than Bender, and it’s an ignominious list. Of the 15 7-footers who attempted at least 100 3-point shots (as we try to account for Bender’s perimeter excursions), only Old Man Nowitzki had fewer dunks. For perspective, Lauri Markkanen had the most 3-point attempts by a 7-footer and still managed 63 dunks — as a rookie.
Kokoskov’s offense — any offense — can only do so much to help Bender. When all is said and done, Dragan has to help Dragan.
But there are unheralded aspects of that Slovenian team’s play that could pay larger dividends with regard to molding Bender into a legitimate NBA player.
Despite having a roster where seven of his 12 players were 25 years or younger, Kokoskov’s players were well drilled on offense, understanding where they were supposed to be and when they were supposed to be there in the halfcourt. In the open court, his team committed to the fastbreak and ran with abandon. And when it came time to defend, the Slovenian team’s brand of swarming, scrappy defense gave opponents fits. Watching them play Spain brought back memories of the way the 2007 Golden State Warriors overwhelmed the heavily favored Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs.
Achieving that level of buy-in, effort, and attention to detail on both ends from a relatively young team is a good sign heading into a similar situation with the Suns, and this should be what people focus on with regard to the Suns’ roster in general and Bender specifically. Well, that and this following quote from Kokoskov:
“This is not development league,” Kokoskov said. “This is NBA, professional league. There’s no young or old; there’s just good or bad teams. And we have to work hard to get better. …Being young doesn’t mean anything, so we’ll never hide behind it and try to be younger and use it as excuse. We’ll try to win the game.”
Kokoskov is lauded for his development abilities, and those will undoubtedly help Bender. But applying the above principle and putting an end to the coddling will help Bender more. As Booker said last season, the team has been spoiled by getting to play through mistakes and receiving minutes that weren’t earned, but if Kokoskov can impart on Bender that there is a right way to play and a wrong way to play, he will be better for it. Imbuing Bender with even half of the physical and mental toughness that Slovenia showed under Kokoskov’s watchful eye would do for his development what no amount of gifted minutes ever could.
At that point, Kokoskov will have done all he can, and it will fall to Bender to change the narrative, climb from the dustbin, and prove he’s more iPhone than Gerbil Shirt.