If second-year players at Summer League are like rottweilers on a long leash, then third-year players at Summer League -- even 20-year-olds -- are the puppies who still haven’t learned to walk.
When the Suns released their 2018 roster for the Las Vegas showcase, my original optimism (the players and coaches could really grow together through their work this week) was soon replaced with micro-diagnoses for individual players:
How much will Josh Jackson actually play? Surely the loose structure of Summer League, which only somewhat resembles actual basketball, wouldn’t benefit Jackson, who needs more than anything to be given a defined role within new coach Igor Kokoskov’s system.
Who gets the lion’s share of minutes in the backcourt, with Shaquille Harrison and Davon Reed competing for their livelihood next season? Will the Suns really use Summer League to make their decision?
But mainly, I zeroed in on one guy, who was mysteriously included in the roster despite playing all 82 games in the NBA last year. Dragan Bender, endlessly confounding and infinitely gifted, would be making his third trip to Las Vegas with the Summer Suns.
A Breakdown of Bender
The Suns view this as a pivotal year for Bender. Not only must they make a decision on the third-year option built into his rookie-scale contract this fall, but this roster is moving forward at a pace the Bender of years past won’t be able to keep up with.
“Year Three, especially for a younger player, is an important year. It’s a pivotal year,” general manager Ryan McDonough said during the ESPN broadcast Friday night.
“With Dragan, we are taking a longer lens. We knew that it would be a multi-year process when we drafted him, but he’ll get an opportunity this year, and we think and hope he’ll make the most of it.”
Bender made strides last season. He shot 37 percent from deep on a steady diet of 3s; in fact, nearly two-thirds of his total shot attempts came from distance. He also became a more active playmaker, assisting on nearly 10 percent of the Suns’ made baskets while he was on the floor.
But hesitancy, a trademark of his at this point, held him back. It was no different over the weekend at Thomas and Mack Center.
Early in the Dallas game, Bender initiated two fast break opportunities and looked like the veteran focal point he should be on this team. Never a great rebounder, the outlet passes seen as a strength when he entered the league have evaded Bender. Against a frontcourt of Jonathan Motley and Dorian Finney-Smith, Bender was able to mix it up inside and create easy looks early in the game.
But later on, he showed the same concerning missteps that take the Suns out of rhythm. Most noticeable was an unforced travel behind the 3-point line. Another similar play came Saturday night against the Kings. Through two games, he had eight turnovers and just five points.
While Bender may not have made the type of leap in his second season that allowed him to bypass Summer League, his role came into focus. He will space the floor if he can continue to make 3s, and at 7-1 with tremendous court vision and passing instincts, teams will have to respect him off of closeouts.
After Monday’s 3-6 performance, Bender is 4-13 from deep in Las Vegas.
“We want it to be something where he is very well-respected in the league as a catch-and-shoot guy,” Kokoskov said after Saturday’s game. “There’s so many other areas of the game that he can help, especially when the 3 is falling. … Defensive energy, length, size, helping guys who were late defensively, blocking a shot, second-effort plays.”
This kind of play signifies the double-edged sword of watching Bender. It’s good if it creates an open shot, it’s bad if it ends in a charge or a fumbled pass. It’s easy to analyze the results rather than the process when it comes to Bender, who can overthink the game.
In this case, it’s a smart play by Bender, but also: Holy Okobo. If the Suns have more reliable shot-makers populating this year’s roster, Bender’s lack of scoring aggression will be much less infuriating.
We mistake patience for hesitancy when it comes to Bender. By the end of this year, I forecast grander adulation for Bender’s foresight from those who, over the past two seasons and through this hot summer weekend, besmirched his indecision.
He finished Monday’s game with 11 points and no turnovers. Of course he did.
The common refrain in regard to Summer League is dismissive -- “it doesn’t matter.” But it does matter for inconsistent players who enter under pressure, with long-term consequences for their performance.
Bender’s career won’t be made this weekend by any means, but considering the jump many assumed he would take under Kokoskov and the fact he’s entering the unforgiving stretch of a player’s career -- no longer too young to play, not yet a veteran -- it matters.
We’re not closer to solving the conundrum that is Bender’s career, but any bit of evidence that brings us closer to knowing what the former No. 4 overall pick can be as a player is valuable.
After all, it is his third go-around. Maybe by the end of it, we’ll trust him to walk.