Few prospects have Dragan Bender’s mix of size, smarts and talent, which is why the Phoenix Suns plucked him with the 4th overall pick in June. They hope the 7’1″ Croatian phenom becomes a key pillar of their rebuilding frontcourt.
At just 18 years old, he already exhibits a superb feel for the game along with promising ball skills and tremendous defensive length. However, Bender doesn’t have much experience against high-level opponents.
After excelling in multiple European junior circuits earlier in his career, he played just 12.9 minutes per game for Maccabi Tel-Aviv last season. He’s relatively untested compared to most rookies, so it may take time for Bender to compete effectively in his optimal role.
The Suns won’t join the upper crust of the Western Conference in 2016-17, so player development and team cohesiveness should be emphasized. Earl Watson will likely carve out some time for Bender to endure growing pains while flashing his versatile long-term potential.
Offensive role, expectations and limitations
Bender will have a modest, peripheral role in year one. He’s not yet equipped to be more than a supplementary scorer who plays off the ball and scores via cuts, rebounds and catch-and-shoot opportunities.
While he’s a good ball-handler for his size, Bender’s not ultra-quick, and his repertoire isn’t advanced yet. He will gradually tighten his handle and get better at foiling defenders, but right now he can’t consistently create his own shot. During Summer League, he had to rely mostly on the dribble penetration of his teammates in order to get buckets. Rafael Uehara of Upside & Motor noted the youngster’s current deficiencies:
Attacking closeouts, Bender lacks an explosive first step to blow by his man on catch-and-go’s and is prone to getting the ball stripped in traffic due to his dribble…Lacking strength to maintain his balance through contact, he often can’t get all the way to the basket on dribble drives and when he could, Bender lacked burst to attack rim protection with any force. He’s flashed a nice touch on floaters to finish from the in-between area but is a lousy pull-up shooter at this stage of his development.
That sounds gloomy, but Bender also has a great feel for the game and will deliver bright moments this season. He knows how to move without the ball, find open space and capitalize on defensive miscues. With electrifying guards like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker drawing tons of attention, Bender will lurk on the weak side and feast when opponents overplay the strong side.
Here’s an example of him connecting smoothly with Knight before the Utah Jazz had a chance to react:
Phoenix can also count on Bender to dish the rock well for his position. His sharp instincts and basketball IQ made him a superb passing forward in Europe, and he’ll keep the offense flowing. Bender won’t drop a ton of dimes—he averaged just one assist per game in Summer League and preseason play—but he’ll make the right plays and help streamline the Suns’ sets. He’s way ahead of his age group when it comes to anticipating passes and executing them accurately.
As Uehara mentioned, Bender’s pull-up shooting arsenal needs polishing. However, he’s a respectable catch-and-shoot option, especially from mid-range. Bender has a compact motion with an elevated release, and he looks comfortable from 15-20 feet.
Check out his footwork and mechanics on this baseline out-of-bounds play. Bender planted, turned and quickly launched a pretty shot for a 7-footer:
Is he ready to make triples at an efficient rate? Probably not. Bender shot 34 percent from the international arc last season (which isn’t awful), 27 percent during Summer League and 1-of-10 so far in preseason. The underwhelming marks shouldn’t discourage him from firing away this year, but I expect much better results from mid-range.
Bender’s low-post success will depend on his matchup. He’ll extend vertically to get off hook shots against 4’s, but he’ll struggle to establish position and assert himself against bulkier bigs. Bender doesn’t have a strong enough base to move 250-pound centers and get where he wants to be. His slender frame will also limit offensive rebounding opportunities, but don’t completely count him out on the O-glass. Bender’s timing, length and agility will corral a few boards.
This season, he’s sharing the power forward position with Jared Dudley and Marquese Chriss. Watson will afford Bender developmental playing time in modest doses, so he’ll likely see 17-20 minutes per game. Given his supplementary offensive role, he’ll notch 6-8 points, 4-6 rebounds, 1-2 assists, 45 percent shooting and 28 percent from three-land.
Bender’s long arms, mobility and awareness will make an early impact. Suns fans will enjoy watching him cover the floor, contest shots and protect the rim.
He moves quickly enough to guard most power forwards and centers, and his rangy strides also come in handy as a weak-side helper. Bender’s timing and length churned out a block percentage of 6.2 in Israel last year, and he has at 4.7 percent so far this preseason.
Against the Jazz, we saw an emphatic example of what happens when opponents underestimate his agility. Bender rotated from the weak side to obliterate Jeff Withey’s ill-advised layup attempt:
Shot-blocking opportunities aren’t always gift-wrapped like that, but it gives you an idea of his bounciness and reach.
Bender’s mobility will enable him to check most 4’s and 5’s, although he’ll struggle with speedier 4’s and bulkier 5’s. He’s been touted as the type of big man who can switch on pick-and-rolls; that will hold true in some cases, but he won’t hang with guards as effectively as he did in Europe.
As an isolation post defender, Bender will alter shots but will give up acres of positional ground. Don’t be surprised if he racks up a bunch of fouls when opponents catch the ball deep in the paint.
Bender’s lack of strength will also hurt him on the defensive glass. Cleaning the boards has never been a strong suit of his, and it he won’t be a respectable rebounder until he adds 20 pounds of mass and learns to carve out space. That’s why he might not crack five total rebounds per game as a rookie.
Although Bender may have trouble holding his own defensively in 2016-17, he’ll deliver sporadic glimpses of a bright future. Once his strength catches up with his length, he’ll be an above-average frontcourt stopper. For now, Phoenix will have to enjoy his remarkable wingspan, agility and smarts.