There is No Bender Time Than Now, to Unleash the Dragan

Sep 26, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender poses for a portrait during media day at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 26, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender poses for a portrait during media day at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You may have noticed that Valley of the Suns did not present a post game wrapup for the game on Saturday Nov. 19, following the Suns’ loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

The game was terrible. The Suns were terrible. Down by as many as 26 points in the 4th quarter to a team that had 47 wins over the last three years – plus only two this season going into the game – the Suns were unable to overcome the second night of a back-to-back, and for the most part were never even competitive.

Phoenix does not seem to be any further along in their growth and development than they were last year, and record-wise, are three games worse (they were 7-7 in 2015-16) through 14 games.

One thing is obvious: our beloved team is in an awful early-season funk, although, as I say that, it seems more and more likely that this is who they truly are.

At 4-10 the Phoenix Suns are suffering through the 4th worst start in the franchise’s history through fourteen games (1-13 in 1996-97; and 2-12 in 1985-86 and 1973-74).

Suns fans are becoming restless. Losses against Sacramento (4-9), Brooklyn and Denver (4-8), and now Philadelphia (3-10), who are all mediocre to bad teams that the Suns should compete with is bad enough.

What is worse is that they have lost each of those games by an average of 17 points.

The Suns lead the league in pace, they are first in 2-pt FG’s made and attempted, and sixth in scoring. And yet this team cannot find a way to win, let alone stay in most games (they are losing games by an average of 12.2pts).

Though it is still early in the season, this team is generally healthy. Devin Booker and T.J. Warren are banged up, but the only player to miss any legitimate time is Tyson Chandler, and that hasn’t even been from injury. Imagine if even one of their key core players went down for an extended period of time. It would be 2015-16 all over again.

Unfortunately this perspective and these stats are indicative of who they are. A bad basketball team.

Granted, we all knew that going in, but the Suns were supposed to be better. As of now, they may actually be worse.

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Oct 3, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) dribbles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It is time to unleash the Dragan.

Although drafted 4th overall, Dragan Bender came into the NBA as a project

An 18-year old kid who barely played with his European professional clubs, the high end of Bender’s comparisons are to Dirk Nowitzki in size and style. Should he pan out to be anything similar to Dirk, General Manager Ryan McDonough hit the jackpot.

Dragan is rough around the edges. He isn’t very strong yet and gets rattled around under the hoop on rebounds fairly easily. He occasionally gets lost on his offensive assignments and is not a consistent shooter yet.

But he has also shown plenty of promise. His height and length affords him the ability to be pushed around a little because he can grab rebounds that carom off the rim widely. His drive is a serious plus for him as he runs very hard up and down the court keeping him with or in front of the opposition more often than not. His shooting has also significantly improved since Summer League when it seemed that even a wide open shot was a tough one and is now third on the team in three-point percentage of any player who has made six or more threes this season.

Currently second on the team in +/- with +16, in the first three games that Bender has played more than ten minutes, the team has responded on the court.

On opening night, when the starters dug a huge hole, the CUBs (Chriss, Ulis, and Bender) sparked a comeback, led by Dragan and his 10 points finishing with a +/- of +10. Against Portland on November 8, Bender played in a season high 23:01. He again scored 10 points, had a +/- of +19, and tied his career high with two three-pointers. Recently on November 13, in the loss to Golden State, Bender finished with five points and a +7 on two of two shooting, including a three, while additionally grabbing two rebounds and blocking a shot.

In no other game that he has appeared in – he has four DNPCD’s – has he had a +/- of below -7 (a 7 minute appearance against Brooklyn. Yet, he still managed 5 points on 2-3 shooting, including a three).

Bender Shot Chart

As you can see by this Shot Chart, Bender likes to hang out at or around the three-point arc. Of his six shots within the key he has made four, three of which were assisted layups.

Bender’s ability to shoot from the outside (he is currently 6-17 and 35.3%) allows him to stretch the floor which opens the lane for the guards to drive and dish back out to him when/if the defense has collapsed. In fact, over 75% of his three’s have come off of assists.

Additional minutes will subsequently force the defense to honor his shot, in which case pump fakes and picks will allow Bender to drive and either take closer and more efficient shots – much like T.J. Warren – or use his length to get to the basket. Bender is not very strong yet. But teaching the defense to honor his outside shot will make his offense more effective, especially as he becomes more comfortable with the NBA game, partially negating his inability to push anyone around.

Bender has thus far played 96 minutes this season. And yet, only about 27 minutes has been with starting PG Eric Bledsoe. It is not out of the realm of possibility that additional time with Bledsoe will also enhance Bender’s effectiveness on the court. In fact, of the ten shots Bender has made that have come off of assists, zero have come off a pass from Bledsoe.

It is with all of this in mind that I believe it is time to unleash the Dragan and start Bender at the power forward spot.

Marquese Chriss did not necessarily earn a position in the starting rotation. I say this also noting that he has not necessarily played himself out of the rotation either. However, he has further not proven that he is any more deserving of it than Bender – or at this point Alan Williams, for that matter.

In five games in the starting lineup, Chriss is averaging 5.6 points per game, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.9 fouls (a statistic that has actually dropped in recent games, although he still averages 6.9 personal fouls per 36 minutes). He also carries a +/- of -60, having not finished a game with a positive number since Halloween night against the Clippers until a +5 against Indiana on November 18.

While he is only 5-18 (27.8%) from beyond the arc (one fewer three made and one more three attempted than Bender who is shooting 35.3%), he is not a scoring threat from the outside. His scoring strengths lie in his ability to attack the rim, something that has proven to be highly entertaining, but not a planned method of scoring in a team’s offense.

With Dragan Bender playing against starting talent, he will get a better understanding of the higher quality of starting talent in the NBA. Yet more importantly, time with the Suns starters will allow him to better gel with Bledsoe, Booker, and Warren, providing them with additional outside shooting support if theirs fail to materialize on any given day.

Marquse Chriss might prove to be more effective scoring off the bench himself as he will not be playing against starting talent. Since he is so effective moving without the ball and cutting to the rim, he may actually find it easier to do so in lineups against backups who are less accustomed to defending such athletic and mobile power forwards.

And this is a bit more small potatoes, but with Chriss’ habit of fouling too often, coming off the bench will negate that a bit, putting less stress on the rotations if he picks up a few quick fouls, which he is apt to do so far in his career.

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Nov 6, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson reacts during a NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rotations

Head Coach Earl Watson noted early on that he would be evaluating rotations on a five-game basis, looking for positive and negative trends within those periods of time and adjusting accordingly. To some it seemed like five games was a small period of time to let lineups and rotations gel, and fans and the media alike have noticed an irregularity in the rotations that have been used, providing little in the way of balance from game to game.

It therefore would not be too much of a shock to the players if Bender suddenly began receiving starters minutes and additional playing time with the better players on the roster. Additionally, in a lineup with Bledsoe, Booker, and Warren, each who love to drive, Bender, who is more apt to stand at the three-point line and wait for the dish out for a quick open shot, will excel in the role as he will not instinctively crash the rim like Chriss, and will further spread the floor for the guards to cut to the rim as slower power forwards will be forced to stay out on Bender with the greater expectation that he will shoot.


The Suns do not seem to be on pace to win much this season. Not only will it be time soon enough to bench and few of the starters in favor of more time for the younger players, the time may too come to start trading a few off. Either way, the rookies will need more playing time and Dragan Bender should be given every opportunity to grow. Even if the Suns started winning over the next few weeks, Bender has the potential to be influential and needs Thebes’s love reps.

Give the kid a chance. It’s time to Unleash the Dragan. There is no Bender time than now.

*All Statistics and information were meticulously selected from NBA.com/stats and basketball-reference.

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