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Fly away: Dragan Bender is reportedly heading back to Europe to play for CSKA Moscow

The Croatian-born Maccabi Tel Aviv product is heading overseas with his NBA career in neutral.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

This season, dragons got more playing time on Game of Thrones than the Phoenix Suns, leaving a glaring impression that Dragan Bender would not be back for his fourth season.

The saga began in October when the Suns declined to pick up Bender’s fourth-year team option on his rookie-scale contract. It concluded Wednesday when reports surfaced pinning Bender to Euroleague powerhouse CSKA Moscow.

Coming off a championship in Europe’s top league, CSKA Moscow clearly coveted Bender, though they are reportedly leaving the possibility open for Bender to return to the NBA if a last-minute deal arises. The Suns no longer have room on their roster and the signing of Frank Kaminsky spelled the end of Bender’s tenure with the franchise that drafted him.

It’s not difficult to see why CSKA Moscow wanted Bender. He will be just 22 this upcoming season and finished the season strong. In 15 March games, Bender averaged five points, four rebounds and an assist on 50 percent shooting from the field and 36.4 percent shooting from deep as the starting power forward.

There was also a noticeable shift in his attitude. Anyone watching the Suns or covering them saw a more positive, confident, energetic Bender. He was a Chemist in the truest sense of the word, cheering from the bench and hooting and hollering after a few late-season victories.

It was too little too late. The skilled big man couldn’t cut it for the majority of his first three seasons, passing up open shots, refusing to play physically inside, and generally not enforcing his will enough on the game. By the time Igor Kokoskov was hired, Bender’s relationship with the team had already run its course, and Bender wasn’t in the rotation.

There’s an alternative timeline in which Bender spends his first season entirely in the G League, perhaps doesn’t play Summer League in 2017 (look at this roster for a throwback) or 2018, and develops more slowly. That wasn’t the way things were done in Phoenix during Bender’s time with the franchise. The team drafted unprepared young players and demanded they perform well immediately. Bender didn’t.

Certainly, his skill set is ever more coveted in the NBA, meaning he will get plenty more opportunity to come back to the league if he plays well overseas. Any 7-footer who can shoot, pass and defend in space is going to get a look by NBA evaluators. And Bender will be a featured part of a good European team, meaning he’ll be in the spotlight more this season than he would have as an NBA team’s 15th man.