When evaluating a player or prospect on any level, you have to consider surrounding context. Player role, in terms of usage and optimal role utilization, as well as teammate quality, are crucial inputs in the analysis process. Without context, you have nothing.
If you looked at Dragan Bender’s rookie season from a bird’s-eye view, both on highlight clips and general statistics, you would likely be unimpressed. A 7-footer with a 45.9 true shooting percentage and four percent free-throw rate (three attempts all season!!!) is unquestionably outlier poor. However, there is a reason for this, that mostly resides in context.
Bender has the ball skills of a 4 or a 5, and quite advanced ones at that. But he’s a big space player who thrives either pushing the ball in grab-and-go situations in transition, or attacking closeouts using his speed and agility to get around less mobile big men using respectable handling and his good feel as a passer. He is not a wing, lacking the advanced handle and shiftiness to create separation when more athletic players get into his body and take away that space. Unfortunately, Bender has predominately been used as a wing thus far this season.
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The Phoenix Suns have a front-court log jam, with Tyson Chandler and Alex Len manning minutes at the 5, fellow rookie Marquese Chriss, Jared Dudley, and P.J. Tucker garnering most of the 4 minutes, and still trying to fit in the latter two plus T.J. Warren at the 3. Basically, Bender is currently caught in a backed-up situation, and he’s the one paying the piper in order to see court time.
Through December 22 Bender has only played 15 of his 224 total minutes without any of Dudley, Tucker or Chriss on the floor, meaning legitimate minutes at the 4, per NBAWowy. It’s puzzling why Suns coach Earl Watson declared Chriss the starter for the rest of the season so early in November after Phoenix invested higher drafted capital in Bender. It’s even more of a head-scratcher now since from both the eye-test and numerous metrics Bender has clearly outplayed Chriss.
Bender’s defense is so far ahead of Chriss’ at this juncture you’d think a team that is 24th in defensive efficiency, and who by all accounts is trying to win, would consider a change. It’s not nearly to the level of the Denver Nuggets’ curious treatment of Nikola Jokic early in the season, but it’s still perplexing.
It’s probably a stretch to say Bender’s long-term growth is being stunted because of this. He’s the youngest player in this draft class, and any experience at all is probably a good thing as he, similar to Brandon Ingram, remains in needed strength acquisition limbo. It is, however, easy to say Bender is being misused playing out of position.
Fifty percent of Bender’s possessions come via spot-up finishing possessions, per Synergy, and he is posting a feeble 0.76 points per possession, good for the 15th percentile. More to the point, 62.7 percent of Bender’s field goal attempts are 3-point shots, per Basketball-Reference, an astronomically high number for a big man. Why is that? Because he’s being guarded by wings and he doesn’t have the aforementioned handling or the post game to counter. All he really can do in that setting is play in transition, cut and spot-up, and really his spot-up, attack closeout game is neutralized by the increased lateral agility of wings closing out to him.
Bender’s physical development is not nearly at the point to punish smaller players, as you can see here where 6-foot-4 Eric Gordon pushes him right off his spot on the block.
Bender is certainly not ready to punish mismatches with his frame, and the reality is he might never be. Bender has never been a post player. He’s a face-up, stretch big with the handle and feel to playmaker in space. He needs to be utilized as such, where 4s at the very least are guarding him.
Role has not been the only problem. Minutes in general have been hard to come by with 30 percent of his total minutes this season coming over Phoenix’s last two games. It’s too early to say if this will be a trend moving forward, with Dudley receiving DNP-CD designations in those two outings. If Phoenix is dedicated to playing their young guys more, that bodes well for Bender, who probably earned playing time with his play in that stint. At the very least, we finally have some real high-minutes tape to analyze.
For starters, the allure with Bender as a draft prospect was always defense-first. Armed with quick-reactionary athleticism, outlier feet moving laterally in space and outstanding overall mobility with his speed, Bender can really cover ground and guard all areas of the court.
We see Bender quickly react to Gordon’s cut here, and he has the speed to stay on his hip to ultimately block the shot, allowing Gordon no separation.
A lot of 7-footers are left in the dust here, lacking the speed and agility to stay attached (Gordon would get his revenge later in the game blowing by Bender in space and emphatically dunking).
In the following clip, we again see Bender guarding a perimeter player, this time Corey Brewer, defending a pick-and-roll situation in space. Brewer ends up rejecting the screen before it’s even set, trying to beat Bender to the basket. Bender gets whistled for the foul (hard to tell if it was with this angle), but he shows the foot speed to slide sitting down in space to wall-off Brewer.
Bender even has the stop and start agility to quickly change directions on closeouts to contain drives. He fouls Patrick Beverley here with poor technique turning into him instead of staying on his hip, but the ability is there.
Bender pairs physical gifts with high intelligence. Watching him numerous times playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv High last year, his intelligence on defense really stood out. He would do little things like chip shooters on floppy sets, rare for a player that age. Watch him diagnose the play here, realizing the design is for a James Harden post-up, and knowing Montrezl Harrell isn’t a shooting threat he performs a high IQ sag-off denying the entry pass for the steal (it was obviously a poor read by Harrell).
Defensive tools without intelligence only get you so far, and Bender has the latter in spades. Here, he shows some physicality along with performing the correct rotation tagging Nene Hilario on the roll and keeping him off the offensive glass.
Bender never profiled as an imposing interior defender, especially initially, with his frail frame, lack of lift and lack of plus length. He got run-through a lot during international play at the rim, and always profiled as a better recovery or secondary rim protector at the 4 spot than a true 5 who could challenge shots from a stand-still anchoring the defense. Thus far in a limited sample, teams are shooting 50 percent with Bender around the rim. For context and comparison sake, teams are shooting 62.2 percent with Chriss around the rim.
Bender is also not an overly physical rebounder, lacking the vertical pop to high-point balls in traffic and the frame to box out. He wasn’t an outlier negative rebounder entering the league like Chriss was from a statistical standpoint (I’m not unfairly or maliciously railing on Chriss here I promise, we’ll get to him in a later episode), but it was not going to be a strength. His 13-rebound performance against Houston was probably not indicative of his promise there, but it was still good to see.
On the other side of the ball, one area Bender can actually contribute playing out of position is in transition. Almost 19 percent of his finishing possessions come in transition, where Bender utilizes his high-end speed to beat less-mobile bigs down the floor (here you more so just see the speed because he leaks out and Harden loses back contain).
As touched on in the introduction, the other main contributing playtype Bender can perform now is spot-up shooting. He’s shooting just 14 of 47 from 3 on the season, and he’s never been a knockdown shooter, but he is range capable.
His release isn’t ultra-quick and it’s kind of mechanical, but he shows good balance as in the following clip on the trail 3.
This is the most impressive shot I’ve seen Bender make this year, where he steps into a 3 on the move utilizing the hop.
Phoenix does use Bender as a pick-and-pop threat, such as here on a designed double-high set that ends up with Chandler setting a down-screen for Bender, who knocks down the shot.
Perhaps Bender’s best quality as a shooter is his ability to get off high volume just by nature of being a 7-footer usually operating in space and possessing the size to shoot over closeouts like in the following case.
You really come away watching Bender thinking he should be converting more open shots. He was almost a 34 percent 3-point shooter and 72 percent free-throw shooter in all international play in 2015-16. Those aren’t elite numbers, but getting to, or exceeding, league average behind the arc on respectable volume should be possible.
When Bender has actually had the ability to operate against opposing 4s and 5s, he’s showed off the handle and agility to get around typically less-mobile bigs. He blows by fellow rookie 5-man Chinanu Onuaku on a straight-line drive, and Onuaku has pretty decent feet.
The following is kind of the holy grail of what you ultimately expect the Bender product to look like in the spot-up and attack closeouts game. He’s being guarded by Harrell, a backup NBA 5, and he gets him in the air with a pump-fake, blows by him and shows the handle and vision to navigate his way to the rim and locate Warren on the move for the drop-off pass to finish.
This is what Bender eventually could be — a two-way 4 who can shoot well enough, handle on grab-and-gos, attacking closeouts and on 4-on-3 situations, while possessing the vision to pass on the move. Pair those offensive skills with elite space defense in the pick-and-roll game and the rim protection acumen to allow him to kick over to the 5 in some matchups, and we have something to build on. He has that kind of functional athleticism, skill-level and intelligence.
There is a reason a lot of us here at The Step Back included Bender as one of the three real impact players in the 2016 draft class. The ability is there. The question is how soon will he get the opportunity.