• 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

  • Jimmy Butler - G/F - Philadelphia Sixers

    According to Tom Moore, it's a good move for the Sixers to sign Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to big deals over the summer.

    Moore points out that the move to acquire Butler at the NBA trade deadline was with the intention of keeping him with the team long-term. Butler was one of the more reliable Sixers players in the playoffs and his experience and composure shined through. Both he and Harris are expected to get a lot of suitors come free agency so it will be interesting to see how much the Sixers will be willing to cough up to retain their talented veterans.

    Source: Tom Moore on Twitter

  • Brook Lopez - C - Milwaukee Bucks

    The Bucks have multiple decisions to make when free agency starts but re-signing Brook Lopez is a priority, according to Malika Andrews.

    The Bucks will likely lock up Khris Middleton first and then will have to decide on Malcolm Brogdon. He is a restricted free agent, but keeping him may vault Milwaukee into the luxury tax. After those two, Lopez is a priority over the other pending free agents such as Nikola Mirotic and George Hill. The Bucks won't have Bird Rights on Brook Lopez meaning they'd only have the mid-level exception to offer him, and if they go into the luxury tax, the mid-level exception drops from about $9 million to about $5 million. He'd almost certainly be taking a discount to stay in Milwaukee, but it's still possible he remains a Buck.

    Source: Malika Andrews on ESPN

  • Nick Nurse - Team - Toronto Raptors

    According to Peter Yannopoulos, Nick Nurse will be the coach of Team Canada this summer at the World Championships in China.

    Nurse will be succeeding Hornets assistant coach Jay Triano, and will be in a similar position that Gregg Popovich has with Team USA. Nurse has had a meteoric rise since being the innovator of the Raptors new offense in 2017-18 as an assistant, to being promoted to head coach, to making the NBA Finals and now being named Team Canada's head coach.

    Source: Peter Yannopoulos on Twitter

  • OG Anunoby - F - Toronto Raptors

    The Raptors are expressing optimism that OG Anunoby will be able to see the floor for their NBA Finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors.

    Anunoby's size and defensive versatility could make for a very valuable weapon against the Warriors' small-ball lineups. That being said, he has been out for nearly a month and a half, and the Raptors' eight man rotation has hit its stride in the crux of this playoff run. It remains to be seen if he will make it back, but in the event that he can, there is no guarantee that he will be able to crack meaningful minutes in Toronto's tight rotation.

    Source: Ryan Wolstat on Twitter

  • Michael Porter Jr. - F - Denver Nuggets

    As a symptom from his back surgeries, Michael Porter Jr. developed drop foot, and will wear to a leg brace to help stabilize it when he makes his professional debut in Summer League according to Mike Singer of the Denver Post.

    Drop foot makes it hard for one to lift the front part of their foot and is a common symptom of back related ailments, of which Porter Jr. has had two surgeries to address over the last year and a half. Porter Jr. remains an unknown commodity with a laundry list of health concerns as an NBA player. There has been some recent success with young guys being able to bounce back in big ways after suffering year-long injuries, but Porter Jr. will remain a mystery until we see him on the court for his inaugural season.

    Source: The Denver Post

  • Jonas Valanciunas - C - Memphis Grizzlies

    Jonas Valanciunas said that he wants to see who the Memphis Grizzlies hire as their next head coach before deciding on his $17.6 million player option.

    Valanciunas saw his role increase in Memphis after being traded from Toronto, and actually played to compete with the Grizz trying to win enough games to convert their, at the time, low-end lottery pick to Boston. Valanciunas made it clear that he doesn't want to return to Memphis if their plans are to pivot to a rebuild and not compete again next year, saying, "I want to know, how we gonna look in 82 games. I don't want to be a tourist. I want to win.". The Hoop Ball favorite will be hard pressed to find a situation that will give him as much run, and fantasy value, as Memphis did, making this a decision fantasy owners everywhere should monitor.

    Source: Dontas Urbonas on Twitter

  • Kawhi Leonard - F - Toronto Raptors

    Kawhi Leonard held Giannis Antetekounmpo to just .353 shooting from the floor with an offensive rating of 89.4 when guarding him in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    This is needed to emphasize just how dominant of a defensive player Leonard really is. For reference, Giannis shot .578 from the floor with an offensive rating of 121 through the regular season. A total swing of nearly 23 percent and 32 less points per 100 possessions is preposterous for any player, especially an MVP caliber offensive juggernaut in Antetokounmpo. Keep these numbers in mind as the debate over Leonard being the league's best player continues to heat up.

    Source: Micha Adams on Twitter

  • Kawhi Leonard - F - Toronto Raptors

    Kawhi Leonard posted a monster line in Saturday's 100-94 Game 6 win, scoring 27 points with 17 rebounds, seven assist, two steals, two blocks and six turnovers.

    Leonard put the Raptors on his back and carried them into their first NBA Finals appearance. After losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals the Raptors stormed back to take the next four to seal the series. Kawhi has been simply marvelous for this team and found a way to crank it up another notch, averaging almost 30 points per game this series. He was all over the court this game and dominated the Bucks from inside the paint. A 4th quarter dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo punctuated this dominance and sent the hometown crowd in a frenzy. The Raptors will try to keep their hot streak going as they face the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo - F - Milwaukee Bucks

    While Giannis Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a five-year supermax contract worth over $247 million, ESPN's Malika Andrews is reporting that the 2020 playoff run could swing whether or not Antetokounmpo stays with the Bucks long-term.

    The Bucks have three of their starters and two key bench pieces heading into free agency this summer, so they might have to make some bold choices to keep the necessary parts around while also improving the team on a budget. It's possible that this is the Antetokounmpo camp's way of encouraging Milwaukee to empty the wallet and keep the current group together, but it goes against what Giannis has said publicly about the team and city from day one. The Bucks were eliminated mere hours ago but we're already having this conversation. The NBA news cycle is perpetual.

    Source: ESPN

  • Kyle Lowry - G - Toronto Raptors

    Kyle Lowry posted a solid line in Saturday's Game 6 win scoring 17 points while adding five rebounds, eight assists, three 3-pointers, one steal and only one turnover.

    After a pedestrian series against the 76ers, Lowry stepped it up against the Bucks, averaging almost 20 points per game in the Eastern Conference Finals. He did a great job making smart plays for the Raptors and they will need him to continue to operate at this high level as they head off into the NBA Finals next week.