On Sunday in a near-win over a playoff caliber Minnesota team, former fourth overall pick Dragan Bender played the best game of his entire career for the Phoenix Suns.
With starting center Deandre Ayton and backup Richaun Holmes out with minor injuries, the Suns turned to Bender to start at center against All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns. Bender, who had only appeared in 14 of the Suns 47 games and 10+ minutes in only four of them, came out surprisingly confident and aggressive.
He got to the line a career high seven times and posted season highs in points (12), rebounds (10), assists (2), blocks (1), steals (1) and field goal attempts (10), while helping the Suns keep a lead most of the game on the road. He even made four of five shots in the paint, finishing high and strong against the Wolves bigs.
In short, this was a bit of the Bender we all hoped to see over the past two years. He hoped he would use his athleticism, body control and shooting to become at least a better version of Channing Frye in his prime. Someone who can defend the paint and slide on the perimeter while draining half dozen threes on the other end along with the occasional transition slam.
His only weak spot on Sunday was missing all five three point attempts, including one with a minute left that could have stretched the Suns slim lead to four. But you know that last year’s 36% three point shooter is still in there with enough playing time to loosen up the stroke.
The question is whether Bender can ever repeat Sunday’s performance — by far the very best two-way performance of his career. He’s had only four other double-doubles in 2+ years. His first one came in his rookie year in garbage time of a blowout loss to Houston. The other three occurred in April last year when the Suns were just playing out the string against competition that wasn’t even trying that hard.
When his threes are falling, Bender has contributed a bit on offense. He scored 14+ points in 12 games last year, and made at least three three-pointers in 16 games, including 6 in a win over Oklahoma City and 5 in a win over Houston.
But in nearly all of his 140 career games, including all 82 last year, Bender struggled to maintain his aggressiveness from play to play, often tipping the hand of an entire game on whether his first shot went in the hoop or not.
Despite only turning 21 years old two months ago, Bender’s star has faded. The Suns did not offer him a contract for next season, making him a free agent this summer.
But now that Bender performed so admirably in a near-win, it’s quite possible that the Dragan has a real chance to revive his NBA career over the next few games.
If Ayton and/or Holmes continue to nurse injuries, Bender will continue to get chances as the center in the middle of the Suns switchy-wing defense.
He will have to stay aggressive on Tuesday in the rematch against Minnesota, in front of his hometown fans, against the same team he just played two days ago.
He’s going to have to approach that double-double again. Maybe make a three or three along the way. Otherwise, he might just let this last chance pass him by completely.