My Sophomore Crush: It’s time for the Suns to unleash Dragan Bender

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 26: Dragan Bender
PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 26: Dragan Bender /

It’s summer — popsicles, beaches, campfires and summer love. As the heat rises, time slows and crushes develop. We’re leaning into that amorous mood this week at The Step Back, sharing our sophomore crushes. Last year may have given us an uninspiring rookie class, but we’re feeling pretty enamored with the future.

The Suns have firmly entrenched themselves into a rebuild. We got a preview of their impending youth movement during the final month and a half of last season when they sat their key veterans — mainly Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler — to let the young kids loose.

While the highlight of the end of the Suns season was Devin Booker’s 70-point eruption against the Celtics, it was the inactivity of another young prospect that mattered more. Dragan Bender, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, only played five games during the last month and a half because he had to undergo surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankle on Feb. 8.

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Bender had found a niche in the Suns lineup, even when the veterans were still playing. Prior to the ankle injury, he played a little over 12 minutes a night and averaged 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds in 38 games. For the advance stat lovers out there, he posted 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per 36 minutes.

A Croatian import, he has looked up to Toni Kukoc and even modeled his game after the three-time champion. With Booker in line to become the face of the franchise and the addition of do-it-all swingman Josh Jackson — this year’s fourth overall pick, who is nine months older than Bender — Bender could become the pièce de résistance for Phoenix.

Listed at 7-foot-1 and 225 pounds, Bender has the size of a center but the game of a wing. The numbers don’t necessarily back it up (27.7 3-point field goal percent) yet Bender has the ability to stretch the floor from deep. He isn’t an elite athlete, but he has shown progress as a help defender at the rim and he’s agile enough to stick with guards on the perimeter on switches.

Before the 2016 NBA Draft, Bender often drew comparisons to another international 7-footer, Kristaps Porzingis. A little over half a season (43 games played) isn’t enough to draw too many conclusions from, but Bender and Porzingis are different players. Bender is much more fluid athlete laterally while being less explosive vertically.

However, Bender’s best attribute is not physical. He has a very high basketball-IQ. He has shown the ability to be a grab-and-go big. He can make the right reads in the open court and is more than capable as a facilitator. Naturally unselfish, he plays the right way, capable of doing the right thing on or off the ball. Bender never forces action, but instead does his damage within the flow of the game.

As the youngest prospect in his draft class, most of the talk around Bender said he needed a year or two to adjust to the NBA but he would deliver highly on his potential once he did. This season we’ll likely see Bender get more minutes — unless he ends up being shipped off to Cleveland as part of a package to bring Kyrie Irving to the Suns. Bender’s ability to play as a stretch five could open up all types of opportunities for Earl Watson schematically. He is a few pounds away from being able to play center full-time, but he should start the year off as Chandler’s primary back-up.

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In an underwhelming rookie class, it’s easy to forget about the promise Bender brings to Phoenix. The ankle surgery didn’t do him any favors, either. With a year under his belt and a more defined role awaiting him, this could be the year that the Suns unleash the Dragan.