Not every NBA player is a fire-breathing dragon.
The league is littered with successful players that don’t fit the mold of “aggressive” or “intense.”
The Suns have had several in recent memory. The Polish Pillow (Marcin Gortat) averaged a double-double working the pick and roll with Steve Nash. Boris Diaw earned nicknames like “Gordo” (linked to a weight clause in his contract and an affinity for pastries) and “Tea Time” (linked to the ease with which he plays the game... and an affinity for pastries). While the less than forceful nature of these players can cause some fans to yell, “Dunk the damn ball!” it is impossible to deny that the graceful nature of their play can contribute to winning basketball.
This would seem to be the path that Bender needs to carve for himself if he aims to survive in the NBA. He needs to graduate from dainty to graceful.
He is still a long way from convocation.
This summer was not kind to Dragan after he suffered through another disappointing Summer League where he averaged just 6.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game on 37% shooting over five games.
For reference, 6.6 points per game was tied for 218th... so basically, not good.
It hasn’t just been Summer League. Bender has struggled mightily from draft night on.
From his 2016 draft class, Bender ranks 49th in VORP (-0.7), 28th in BPM (-3.0) and 40th in WS/48 (-.005).
In fact, by most measures former teammate Marquese Chriss has actually been better than Bender. While Bender is averaging more assists (per 36) and shoots a better percentage from three point range, Chriss is averaging more points, rebounds, blocks and steals. Chriss is also better than Bender by basically every advanced metric.
The reason that Chriss is no longer with the Suns and Bender is seems to be mostly attitude related. That, and maybe nobody really wanted Bender all that much.
But maybe the Suns still do.
The prospect of Bender joining #1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton to form a twin towers style front court is tantalizing. Both big men are athletic enough that a pairing could feasibly work on the defensive end. Neither are the plodding style that get run off the court by small ball lineups.
I think the chances of Bender becoming an All-Star have dwindled down to approximately zero, which was the hope when he was taken fourth overall.
Despite being the fourth pick in what is generally regarded a weak draft class, Benders ranks 22nd in points per game, 13th in rebounds per game and 20th in assists per game.
On the team with the worst combined record over the last three seasons, where minutes were not only for the taking... but actually gifted to players who didn’t deserve them, Bender managed only the 15th most minutes per game out of his class.
One reason why Bender lags behind that class is age.
Bender, who turns 21 on November 17th, is actually over a year younger than rookie teammate Mikal Bridges, who just turned 22 in August. Bender will have three NBA seasons under his belt before he turns 22.
Add to that the recent comments by Dirk Nowitzki in this ESPN story about new teammate Luka Doncic.
“Obviously, I don’t want to put too much pressure on him (Doncic),” Nowitzki said in the radio interview. “Coming over from a different country, I went through the same thing about 20 years ago. It’s tough to adjust to a lot of things: living in a different country, another culture, to a different game, different coaching, different play style. For me, that took a full year. My first year was really, really tough.”
Bender’s first TWO seasons have been really, really, really tough... but age and cultural adjustment could plausibly explain some of that.
Let’s hope so.
Otherwise Bender is headed down the path of former teammate Alex Len. A player taken fifth overall in 2013 who struggled through three seasons before playing on a qualifying offer and leaving in free agency for a meager deal from the Atlanta Hawks. Or being completely given up on even before that and shown the door like Marquese Chriss... another failed draft pick from the Ryan McDonough draft tree.
So what should the goal for Bender be?
Looking like an actual NBA player would be a good place to start. Actually earning minutes on an NBA roster that has some players now (Ryan Anderson, T.J. Warren, Trevor Ariza) who will be more deserving and a coach who (we think) won’t just dole them out without merit. To translate more of his fundamentals on the defensive end into actual stops for a defense that was pitifully inept last season. To shed his label as the worst rebounding 7 footer in the league. To improve his league average three point shooting to the point it’s a definite plus that other teams must respect.
And above all else to become a little more graceful... and a little less dainty.