We were all in awe of Devin Booker posting a career high 50 on the home court against the Washington Wizards, but Dragan Bender ignited nearly as many out-loud gasps from media row for his performance in the second half.
Yes, the Suns lost.
The Wizards were carried by All-Star Bradley Beal and young athletic center Thomas Bryant, who personally closed the game with a pair of take-the-lead three point plays that no one but his family, friends and maybe an assistant coach or two saw coming.
But that’s just one of 59 losses so far this season for the Suns who are hurtling toward their third 60-loss season — second in a row — in the franchise’s 51-year history, so let’s not dwell on the final score.
Let’s focus on unexpected surprises. And Dragan Bender delivering a handful of impactful plays in a single game definitely qualifies as unexpected.
Bender capped off an 11-point third quarter — three made three-pointers and a gasp-inducing dunk — with this buzzer-beating sidestep three.
That three gave the Suns a 90-89 lead going into the fourth. We won’t talk about Dragan’s second quarter, all right? Don’t google it. Don’t look up quotes or highlights with Jeff Green in them. Just focus on his first, third and most of the fourth quarter. Okay, thanks.
Bender finished the night with 12 points, 6 rebounds, a steal and a pair of DID HE DO THAT?! blocks. Not a crazy stat line, but I believe he qualifies as the Suns second best player in the second half, unless you want to argue for Jamal Crawford who climbed out of his grave to post 12 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds, or Troy Daniels with 15 points (5 threes) and 5 rebounds.
I’m going with the Dragan.
Here he is talking about the game.
And here he is talking about finding a role on this team after a long time on the bench all season.
“It’s great to be out there, playing the game that you love,” he said. “Keep working the whole year and finally get there... it’s a great thing.”
Coach Igor Kokoskov thinks Bender is better player now than earlier this season.
“It sounds kind of strange but I think it was good for him not to play early in the season, kind of to hit a wall and to understand ‘I have to earn this,’ and keep working, keep building his game confidence,” Kokoskov said.
“And then take a little spoon here and there, just little sample and then just wait for this moment where he can step on this stage and just play. That’s how you build young players.”
Let’s recap how the past year has gone for Bender.
A year ago, the 20-year-old 7-foot-1 Croatian was second on the young Suns team in total minutes. He appeared in all 82 games (37 starts) with 25.2 minutes per game. He made 36 percent of his 3.9 threes per game, but only 42 percent on all other shots and grabbed just 4.4 rebounds in those 25.2 minutes. On a per-36-minute basis, Bender would have ranked only 19th on the roster in field goal attempts and 9th in rebounds despite being the tallest player on the team.
This summer and fall, Bender regressed a bit and new coach Igor Kokoskov exhibited some tough love on Dragan as well as other young guys.
“Players have to play,” coach said repeatedly when asked about Bender’s declining minutes, meaning that if you don’t play well you don’t deserve the minutes.
By the end of preseason, the Suns had decided not to even offer Bender a contract beyond this season and buried him on the end of the bench.
We here at Bright Side wrote several pieces on Bender’s wilting NBA skillset, and completely understand how the coaching staff wanted Bender to prove himself before being handed minutes.
Bender appeared in only 13 of the Suns first 46 games, never once reaching 25 minutes in any game (last year’s average over 82). He couldn’t hit a three and basically devolved into an oozing mess when he took the court.
The Suns could have used an active, athletic 7-footer next to Ayton for size and rebounding, but chose to rotate a trio of 6-foot-8, 200-pounders at power forward over Bender’s dumpster fire of a game.
But then T.J. Warren went down (ankle) and other injuries hit the team. Now, Bender was back in the rotation.
He’s played in 27 (starting 21) of the last 30 games. His numbers are still head-scratchingly low — 5.2 points, 26% on threes, 4.2 rebounds in 20 minutes a night — and he’s not very good defensively yet, but at least he’s making more shots inside the arc (almost 60 percent) and rebounding at a higher rate than last year.
In yet another lost season, at least we are seeing some tangible growth from the young players. Deandre Ayton has clearly developed more inside moves to score against physicality. Mikal Bridges has become a defensive dynamo and grown as a surprisingly good pocket passer. Devin Booker has developed really nice secondary playmaking skills. And now Bender has displayed some courage, along with some ability to be a factor inside the three-point line.
Now it’s not so impossible to imagine Dragan Bender — who is still only 21 years old until a month into next season — producing in someone’s NBA rotation next season.
Bender will be an unrestricted free agent this summer now that the Suns declined his fourth year option for about $6 million.
Alex Len was in his same position a year ago as a disenfranchised former high pick and ultimately signed with Atlanta for about $8 million over two years, but Len was a long-time starter and had produced at a much higher level than Bender.
Bender will likely get another guaranteed chance next season with an NBA team, but maybe not for much over the minimum. So, he’ll need to choose his best opportunity and make the most of it.
I’m curious to see if the Suns would want to be on that list. Bender is a super-nice guy with supporters in the locker room but he’s not one of the #ValleyBoyz and never really fit in with his American contemporaries.