Just shy of one full year removed from the fateful day that the New York Knicks selected sensation-to-be Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns selected another lanky European from the same spot.
With Dragan Bender officially signed to an NBA team, fans across the league will be waiting to see if they’re watching Porzingis 2.0.
One of the main factors working in Bender’s favor is that he will get as large a role in the rotation as he is able to earn for himself. The Suns are notably shallow at both forward spots as well as at center, leaving plenty of minutes to be won by the seven-footer.
With that in mind, it’s fair to wonder what he will bring to the table in his rookie season.
It is natural to pick out his shot as a reason to be excited. Though it is becoming increasingly common to see the biggest players on the floor knocking down shots from distance, they are still a valued commodity.
Unfortunately, Bender may not bring as much to the table in this area as people think. If he is standing still and left open, he has the ability to make a defense pay. However, he has essentially no arsenal of moves to attack with, and his shot is not nearly consistent enough to make him a threat by itself.
His most valuable trait on offense figures to be his feel for the game. He is a very capable passer and ball-handler for a player his size, making him a prime candidate for a point forward role down the line. It may take him time to adjust to the NBA game, but he is well ahead of most rookies in this area.
Quietly, the area where Bender provides the most upside is on the defensive end.
As the defensive switching craze gains traction in the game of basketball, nimble big men are being seen in a new light. Suddenly, a lack of muscle can be overlooked if a player is tall and capable of holding his own against a guard on the perimeter. If there is one area where Bender’s athleticism shines, it is in his agility. He can absolutely hold his own on the perimeter, making him an intriguing prospect as a pick and roll defender. His wingspan and court vision won’t hurt him on that end either.
However, he doesn’t figure to become an elite defender unless he can become more disruptive in the paint. He won’t be able to fit into traditional lineups as a center, and may even struggle at power forward, unless he can prove himself to be a tougher presence down low. Defending at the rim and pulling in defensive rebounds will be the skills that push him out of the small-ball center role and into the all-around big man he is capable of becoming.
Do these traits add up to another Porzingis? No, they do not.
Porzingis entered the league as a much more experienced player than Bender, and it showed particularly in his scoring ability. While Bender figures to see a huge portion of his buckets come from assists, Porzingis was able to create his own shot from day one. Porzingis also projects to be a defensive anchor for years to come. His toughness and feel down low are excellent for a player his age, and his size makes him a tantalizing prospect.
The comparisons between these two players are based more on circumstance than evidence. A better comparison for Bender may be as a poor man’s Draymond Green.
While Green’s most identifiable characteristics are his tenacity and toughness, areas that Bender figures to lag behind, his versatility and offensive feel are utilized by the Warriors in a way that could ultimately lead to success for Bender.
It’s no secret that the Suns are trying to build a fast-paced, deep-shooting core for the future. Like just about every other team in the league, they are looking at Golden State as the model to emulate. If they are looking closely, they’ll take a chance on putting Bender into the role that has made Green such a force.
There will be nothing preventing Bender from succeeding as a rookie. The minutes will be waiting for him and he will have time to find a way to make his game work. While fans in Phoenix will almost certainly be looking at a work in progress, proper development just may lead Bender to become another in the line of big men that are changing how the game of basketball is played.