• 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.

    The Good

    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.

    The Bad

    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.

    The Questionable

    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.

    Summary

    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.

Fantasy News

  • Zak Irvin
    PG, New York Knicks

    The Knicks have signed guard Zak Irvin.

    Irvin played with the Knicks' G League affiliate in Westchester last season and was with New York for Summer League, but he's not going to make the final roster with the big club. Expect another transaction that sends him down to the G League before the season starts.

    Source: Zak Irvin on Twitter

  • Matt Morgan
    G, Toronto Raptors

    The Raptors have signed guard Matt Morgan.

    The Raptors are now back at the full 20-man roster limit, but this is going to be a move with the G League team in mind. Morgan should be waived in short order, and head down to Raptors 905. There is no fantasy impact here.

    Source: Blake Murphy on Twitter

  • Russell Westbrook
    PG, Houston Rockets

    Mike D'Antoni revealed that Russell Westbrook has "a couple" dislocated fingers.

    Westbrook was sporting a wrap on his right pinky and the injury isn't expected to affect his availability at all. Though news of an injury like this isn't what fantasy players want to hear, it doesn't sound like Westbrook is concerned about it. "It’s all right. I learned a long time ago when I first got in the league, point guard fingers are always going to be f—ed up. That’s just what it is." Continue drafting Westbrook as usual in the lead up to the season.

    Source: Tim MacMahon on Twitter

  • Kelly Olynyk
    C, Miami Heat

    Kelly Olynyk (right knee bone bruise) is expected to play in Thursday's preseason finale.

    Olynyk had been out of action since injuring his knee in Team Canada's game against Nigeria in the World Cup in August. He returns just in time to experiment with his fit as the starting power forward on this new-look Miami offense. Olynyk is an intriguing big man in the last rounds due to his all-around skillset and Miami's lack of frontcourt depth. Keep an eye on him.

    Source: Ira Winderman on Twitter

  • Evan Fournier
    SF, Orlando Magic

    Coach Steve Clifford hasn't decided whether Evan Fournier (back spams) will play in the preseason finale Thursday night.

    He adds that even if Fournier plays, he'll be on limited minutes. Back spasms are always a concern because they tend to linger, but it looks like the Magic are just exercising caution with their starting shooting guard. Fournier is a low-ceiling option who should provide serviceable scoring, threes, and assists numbers in the back end of drafts.

    Source: Josh Robbins on Twitter

  • Patrick McCaw
    SG, Toronto Raptors

    An MRI revealed no structural damage in Patrick McCaw's knee and there is no timeline for his return.

    At one point thought to be competing for one of the starting wing spots in Toronto, McCaw has clearly fallen behind Norman Powell and OG Anunoby, and perhaps even Stanley Johnson and Terence Davis. The injury is a clear setback for the three-time champion and he remains without a firm return date. He may make some noise later in the season, but he's off the redraft radar with this news.

    Source: Josh Lewenberg on Twitter

  • Jaylen Brown
    SG, Boston Celtics

    Celtics' GM Danny Ainge expressed confidence that the team will reach an extension with Jaylen Brown before the Oct. 21 deadline.

    Brown was previously offered a four-year, $80 million extension, which he turned down. If no deal is reached by Monday's deadline, Brown will become a restricted free agent next offseason and should be able to break the bank in what figures to be a weak free agent class. Regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, Brown's statistical profile hasn't translated into fantasy production during his young career and he remains a fringe fantasy option in the very last rounds.

    Source: Chris Forsber on Twitter

  • Nikola Vucevic
    C, Orlando Magic

    Coach Steve Clifford says Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross are expected to play in the preseason finale against the Heat on Thursday.

    The two were dealing with mild ankle sprains, but should be good to go for tonight's final preseason game. Continue to draft Vucevic and Ross as you normally would.

    Source: Josh Robbins on Twitter

  • Devaughn Akoon-Purcell
    PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

    The Thunder have waived DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Abdul Gaddy, Myke Henry and Eric Moreland.

    The moves put OKC's roster down to 16 players. None of these players are on the fantasy radar.

    Source: NBA.com

  • Patrick Beverley
    PG, Los Angeles Clippers

    Patrick Beverley has stated reducing the number of technical fouls as one of his goals for the upcoming season.

    The 31-year-old journeyman sees the development as a sign of his maturity. Beverley had the fifth-most technical fouls in the league with 14 last season, just two away from triggering an automatic suspension. Already a safe bet to miss games throughout the year, any hint that he's dedicated to staying on the court when he actually is healthy is a good sign. Beverley is a solid, if low upside option in the late rounds.

    Source: Los Angeles Times