What to Expect From Dragan Bender in 2017
Heavily rumored in trade talks with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's more than likely that Bender remains a Phoenix Sun this upcoming season. Despite the subpar numbers of his rookie campaign, there remains a lot to like about Bender's overall game. Bender, 19, is as raw an NBA prospect as you'll see. The Suns pulled Bender out of Croatia with the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Entering his second season, it's way too soon to start throwing the word "bust" around. 7'1", 225 pounds with the skill set of a wing — Dragan has the potential to be a great role player in this league. After averaging just 3.4 points in the 13.3 minutes he averaged per game, what can we expect from him as a sophomore? Bender possesses a unique skill set. He can shoot the ball well enough to play on the wing. He's an exceptional passer, and very quick considering his height. With a standing reach of 9'3" he also has the ability to crash the offensive glass regularly. These are all positives that led the Suns to drafting him a year ago. Now, fully healthy, Bender will get to show the Suns his skills if given the opportunity. Putting his rookie numbers aside, let's take a look at what we can expect Bender to do this season.
Create offense with his passing ability:
LeBron James is the league’s premier point forward due to his size and skillful passing. No, Bender is no LeBron, but he does stand at 7'1" and has shown a knack for getting teammates involved. He has incredible vision in transition especially, and has shown that he can put passes right on the numbers. He has the potential to become a "point forward" type of player in this league, and I expect him to make strides with his passing throughout the season.
Look for him to get touches in the post more often, with the intention of kicking out to teammates for open shots on the perimeter. If Bender shows coach Earl Watson he can create opportunities for his teammates, he'll begin to get more time in the rotation. If given the opportunity, Bender could average 5 assists a night this season. Focusing on passing first will subsequently open up his mid-range and three-point opportunities as well.
Develop his offensive skills: Again, with more playing time, Bender will get the chance to work on his three ball, his ability to drive the lane, and the signature hook shot we saw in Croatia. Last season Bender shot 35% from the floor and just 27% from downtown. Injured until January, he never really got into a solid rhythm and the numbers showed. Bender can only go up from here as I anticipate him to shoot close to 40% overall and 30-35% from three this season.
An offensively versatile Bender should get plenty of looks in the post, mid-range, on the wings, and at the top of the key. With bigs guarding him, and some improvement to his handle, we could start seeing his mobility put to use as defenders get blown by. This is probably the most exciting part of his game and potential. With defenders likely to sag off due to his struggles beyond the arc, Bender and the Suns should be more than pleased if he’s able to knock down a respectable number of those open shots from long range this season. He will certainly get the chance to show the Suns his offensive improvements.
Contribute on the defensive end: This ultimately could be the most interesting and important part of Bender's game. With the Suns being a young team, one would expect that a lack of defensive energy should mean little playing time. So it's crucial that Bender continues to flash his defensive upside.
Last season Bender had good defensive stats. When guarded by him, opponents shot 44% overall, 39% from three, and just 38.3% on shots further than 15 feet out. Yes, the sample size was as small as it gets, but he showed potential. Look for Bender to continue, and improve upon, his solid defense. He can be a very good defender in this league. He's big enough to cover forwards in the post, agile enough to switch onto guards in pick and rolls, and long enough to block shots at the rim. Entering games with the second unit, I can see Bender building a role as vocal leader on defense.
Final outlook: With all of Bender’s potential it would be a travesty if we didn’t see any positive strides this season. Practically guaranteed to get more playing time, it should be a good season for him. By the look of things, Phoenix's front office seems committed to giving minutes to their youthful core over veterans. Even if the overall stats don't pop out this season, any real player development will mean a successful season for Bender. Finding his value as a role player, at the very least, will certainly happen this year.