October 20, 2017, 3:02 pm
The clock is ticking on the 7’1” Croatian as he enters his sophomore season. The Suns had very high hopes for him after selecting him 4th overall in the summer of 2016 but the expectations have slowed down after a rookie year that was cut short by an ankle injury. Regardless, he was never expected to make a difference immediately as he is only about to turn 20 years old.
Bender has all the necessary tools to become a prototypical stretch four but he needs to continue improving as he looks more like a perimeter player trapped in a big man’s body. He averaged 14.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 39.4 percent from the field in 31 minutes of action in this year’s Las Vegas Summer League and he is coming out of a very productive preseason where he showed glimpses of his ability to impact the game with his long and lanky figure.
His presence at the 2017 EuroBasket with Croatia was a major disappointment, as he struggled with averages of just four points and two rebounds in 15 minutes of action. His thin frame was exposed over and over again as opponents were able to bully him on both sides of the floor, making it impossible for his coach to keep him on the floor. There is limited statistical data from his career in the NBA and overseas which doesn’t tell the entire story about his game, and the potential for him as a fantasy contributor is immensely high.
Bender can be a good source for points, threes and blocks but the bar shouldn’t be set too high as he’s neither a sharpshooter nor has he shown the consistency required to be considered an offensive weapon at the highest level. Keep in my mind that although Bender has been playing professionally since a very young age, the competition level he has been exposed to is relatively low.
He has a quick release that is hard to block but his shooting mechanics aren’t always consistent and he changes his shot when opponents close out at him.
As expected, he has deep range and is very comfortable as a spot up shooter when he gets the chance to set his feet and release without any hesitation. It’s no surprise that Phoenix’s head Coach Earl Watson talked about wanting his young forward to shoot at least 10 threes per game.
The Croatian sensation is very fluid for his size, something that helps him run the floor and get easy points in transition.
His long body and his game are not fitted for a run and gun style of basketball but most of the times his defender isn’t quick enough to keep up with his pace and won’t follow him to the other side of the floor. The guards that initiate fast break opportunities will always be on the lookout for him in the open court.
Additionally, Bender has the rare ability to play the pick and roll as both a ball handler and as a screener, creating defensive mismatches where he can easily exploit his opponents. Unfortunately, this has not happened yet in Phoenix as his role is that of a spot up shooter and a cutter. It’s definitely something that is worth monitoring in case the Suns really want to see what they have in him.
Although he has been a below average defender so far, it seems that this is more a matter of concentration and not skill, as Bender makes his bread and butter on help defense either on the perimeter or deep in the low post. His 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes is a great indication of his ability to be an effective defensive presence.
Field goal and free throw percentages are where Bender hurts his owners. His offensive arsenal is somehow limited as he can’t create off the dribble and he will get pushed around when trying to post bigger opponents. He has no mid-range game and is very easy to defend as he depends almost entirely on his right hand. Stronger players can bully him on the post and although he has developed a nice hook shot around the basket his release is not dynamic as he tries to avoid contact. For a player his size he has a hard time finishing around the basket – something that translates into missing easy buckets and not getting to the free throw line consistently.
Speaking about free throw shooting, even though he has the reputation of a good shooter he has struggled so far in his career, never registering a consistent mark of over 60 percent.
Defense is one area where Bender needs to put in more work as his physical skills provide a very high ceiling and an opportunity to contribute in rebounds and blocks. Although he was the youngest player in Suns history to record a double-double by tallying career-highs of 11 points and 13 rebounds on December 26 at Houston, that was probably more of an anomaly.
He is a mediocre rebounder who sometimes forgets to box out, and advanced stats do support the case of him being a below average rebounder as his per 36 minutes rebounding rate is at a very modest five per game. His height, on the other hand, makes him a force at the offensive end where he averages 1.4 rebounds per 36 minutes.
What can possibly make Bender a game changer is his ability to initiate the offense in transition after securing the rebound. He has an above average basketball IQ and is a very good passer for his height; a true playmaking center that approaches the game in an unselfish manner and is able to manufacture assists by looking primarily for the extra pass.
Additionally, with the ball in his hands he is able to identify cutters or find the open man at the right spot. Here’s Bender operating like the point guard of the Suns:
And here’s him finding T.J. Warren for the easy layup:
The growing pains of his ball handling skills are also visible at times as he is just trying to do too much which translates into bad turnovers (although his turnover rate is not that high at only two per 36 minutes).
Durability and stamina are where Bender needs to show dramatic improvement if he wants to spend more time on the floor. His thin frame is a target for opposing teams that will not hesitate to switch quickly and have their best post-up player go against him. This leads to plenty of silly off-ball fouls like this one here:
In addition to the lack of strength that severely limits him, Watson has talked a lot about a lack of confidence in Bender’s game, as he is sloppy and usually does things too fast which leads to turnovers or bad shots.
The jury is still out on Dragan Bender. I have been following him closely since his rookie year and I have to admit that I can’t see any real progress on his body frame. Giannis Antetokounmpo had a noticeable muscular change from year one to year two which led to a rapid upgrade of his game but this does not seem to be the case for Bender yet.
There is a case to be made on a lot of pressure being put on Bender. At the age of 14 he played for the U-16 European Championship with Croatia. He made his professional debut at the age of 15 with KK Split and then signed a seven-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv before even turning 17 years old. Watson has repeatedly talked about boosting Bender’s confidence by allowing him to do more on the court and this is the year where we will get to see that. I’d expect him to see approximately 20 minutes of action and if his shot starts to fall he might be able to elevate his game to another level. If that happens, owners should be ready for a good dose of bad percentages along with plenty of rebounds, blocks, threes and occasionally points.