(First posted at Upside & Motor.)
The biggest issue for teenagers at the pro level is dealing with the physical nature of the game. That was part of the reason why Dragan Bender logged just 491 minutes for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season and why he struggled at the Las Vegas Summer League as well. The youngest player in the event, the 18-year-old showed once again he’s simply not yet ready to make a significant contribution at the senior level.
The other problem is that, exactly as it was the case at Maccabi, Bender was not given the proper opportunities to showcase how exactly he is able to help a team at this stage of his development. His top skill, the reason why he was drafted fourth overall, is his passing. For someone who stands at seven-foot-one, Bender showed in the junior ranks remarkable court vision and timing to help create shots for others.
But, while he did flash some ability to handle the ball in pick-and-roll from the perimeter with the Croatian National Team at the U18 European Championships in the summer of 2014, Bender doesn’t have the handle to bring the ball up the court and just dribble his way into a ball-screen against pressure as of now. Just like any other big man, he needs to be given the ball at the right spots, which the Suns failed to do throughout Summer League.
Perhaps concerned with his inability to match up well enough physically against opposing big men, Phoenix had Bender start Summer League logging most of his minutes as a true perimeter player, starting first and third quarters alongside both Marquesse Chriss and Alan Williams. Given Chriss’ ability to spot-up beyond the arc, that should have offered them the flexibility to have Bender and Chriss switch spots in the offense regularly but that never happened.
When Chriss was shut down after the third game, Bender was moved up a position and there was hope Bender would finally be able to get the ball a little more in the high post and be put in the pick-and-roll as a screener. But that still only happened very sporadically. Bender was, throughout Summer League, a pure weak-side option.
And as a pure weak-side option, Bender is just not good enough right now.
He is a capable open-shot shooter; elevating with good balance, fully extending himself and looking to possess clean mechanics up top. But, as was the case with Maccabi when he hit 33.8% of his 77 three-point shots last season, the ball just didn’t go in enough in Vegas, as he missed 25 of 34 three-point shots – according to RealGM.
It remains unclear if Bender can work out of the pick-and-pop as well, as he was not given many opportunities to do that. He has not shown to be the sort of dynamic threat who can come off screens but flashed some ability to move into a spot, set his feet quickly and let it fly.
Attacking closeouts, Bender lacks an explosive first step to blow by his man on catch-and-go’s and is prone to getting the ball stripped in traffic due to his dribble, reflected in his sky-high 25.2% turnover-rate in the context of his 20.1% usage rate. Lacking strength to maintain his balance through contact, he often can’t get all the way to the basket on dribble drives and when he could, Bender lacked burst to attack rim protection with any force. He’s flashed a nice touch on floaters to finish from the in-between area but is a lousy pull-up shooter at this stage of his development.
Bender was put in the pick-and-roll maybe three times during his entire week in Vegas. When he was, he showed soft hands to catch the ball on the move but was unable to go up strong in traffic. Due to his role as a floor spacer, he did very little in the offensive glass but when he generated the eventual second chance, that inability to elevate out of two feet with some explosiveness also prevented him from transforming some of these rebounds into immediate putbacks.
Bender got the ball in the low post a few times but lacked strength to hold a deep seal and bully his way into short-range looks, even against smaller players on switches. He more often than not opted for a face-up jumper, which looked good but also didn’t go in enough, as he missed 12 of his 17 two-point shots. Playing without any sort of physicality, Bender earned just 12 fouls shots in five appearances.
At the start of the week, he guarded mostly wings and proved able to bend his knees to get in a stance. But his week as a perimeter defender was so-so at best.
He’s too big to navigate ball screens but Bender showed some lateral agility and straight line quickness to keep pace with smaller point guards like Russ Smith, Briante Weber and Demetrius Jackson when he picked them up on switches and had plenty of help behind him.
But out on an island, closing out to wings like Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Miller, Abdel Nader and David Walker, he couldn’t stay in front. These bigger types, who have longer strides, didn’t have much trouble going around him and Bender didn’t contest shots from behind as effectively as you’d expect from someone with his length.
As a big during the second half of the week, Bender was also a mixed bag. He proved attentive to his help defense responsibilities and flashed some of his potential as a rim protector rotating off the weak-side, particularly in the game against Denver, elevating off the ground well enough for his nine-foot-three standing reach to make a difference.
But, as it happened in Israel as well, Bender was also a foul machine in such instances. Showing himself not polished enough to elevate vertically contesting shots at the basket, he averaged 5.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes.
Bender looked to box out but that’s another aspect of the game where his lack of strength hurts him thoroughly, as he can get pushed out of the way. But perhaps more concerning, Bender just didn’t play with the sort of energy needed to pursue the ball in traffic against the caliber of athleticism he faced his past week, collecting just 13.9% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, which is a very disappointing mark for someone his height.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor and at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara