The onetime future of the franchise sits on the far end of the visiting bench Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. His Phoenix Suns team is the worst in the NBA, and on this day it’s getting dismantled by LeBron James and the Lakers.
While James is dunking, landing with his arms spread wide in a ready-made photo op, Dragan Bender, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 draft, is on the bench in his sweats.
While his team gets torn apart in the final three quarters of a 120-96 loss, Bender gets off his feet every so often to celebrate made three-point shots. Later, he yawns. Early in the fourth quarter, a teammate appears to ask him why he’s not in the game. Bender shrugs.
It’s a bit of a mystery. Why is the NBA’s worst team not even looking in the direction of the 7-foot-1 forward from Croatia?
“You know as much about it as I do,” Bender told the Times.
The 21-year-old is caught in developmental purgatory. Phoenix declined his option for next season, making him an unrestricted free agent, and no longer has any investment in developing him. He’s played rotational minutes just once this season. Otherwise, most games are like Sunday’s — warmups glued on, playing time available to everyone but him.
“It’s just not playing, not being on the court,” he said. “I worked my ass off over the summer. To be sitting on the bench is kind of frustrating. But, it’s part of life.”
The decision to move on seems like a new one. Bender played in all 82 games last season, averaging only 6.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in 25 minutes. He scored more than 15 points in just six games — not meeting the expectations placed upon him when he was selected. His defense needed work, something true for most young big men in the NBA.
At least he was playing.
Bender, hailed as the next “Croatian Sensation,” was the best international prospect in the 2016 draft, save for Australian Ben Simmons, who had spent one year at Louisiana State and was selected first by Philadelphia. The Lakers selected Brandon Ingram next, Boston took Jaylen Brown third and then the Suns nabbed Bender.
He was a three-point-shooting big man. There were some comparisons to the New York Knicks’ young star, Kristaps Porzingis. It would be an adjustment for Bender, playing in a new country, but the opportunity was there.
However, later on draft night, the Suns traded for Marquese Chriss, who was the No. 8 pick and another power forward. The Suns, intentionally or not, pitted the two players against one another, with Chriss getting off to the better start and earning more minutes than Bender. After Chriss struggled last season, Phoenix traded him to Houston, but that move wasn’t an open door for Bender.
The Suns switched coaches this summer, hiring first-timer Igor Kokoskov to chair their latest version of a rebuild. Kokoskov, a former assistant who came to the NBA by way of Europe, has praised Bender’s work habits and professionalism, but it’s obvious he’s not in the Suns’ plans.
“It’s hard to get better as a young player if you don’t play,” Kokoskov said. “There’s no replica for being on the court, being on the stage and playing.”
Veteran forward Ryan Anderson, one of the players the Suns acquired in the Chriss deal, sees the flashes that had teams high on Bender.
“Dragan’s a very skilled player. In practice, he kills because he’s able to just play freely,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately for him, he came into the league when the game was changing.”
Anderson said when he entered the NBA, “young guys weren’t necessarily expected to be an instant success or else you’re a failure. You built guys up and bred them into what they’re going to become. Now, there’s instant gratification in the NBA.”
Bender eventually got off the bench Sunday. After shaking off some rust — he hadn’t played in more than two weeks — he drilled a pair of jumpers, including an effortless three-point shot.
It’s why scouts are sure Bender’s not out of chances.
One Western Conference scout said teams will be interested in Bender next season on a low-money deal, betting that his talent can blossom once he’s no longer with the Suns. Bender could become the best kind of NBA asset — one outperforming his paycheck.
Scouts believe a winning environment might unlock some of Bender’s potential that teams coveted in 2016. Getting away from talk of being a bust and from a place that’s no longer interested in him, could be good for Bender, NBA personnel folks said.
“He’s one of those guys where you have to remind yourself that he’s just 21,” Anderson said. “I think he has a good perspective on it all, but of course it’s hard.”
Bender, half a globe away from home, hasn’t had the NBA completely turn his back on him — even if it feels like the Suns have. Whether it’s with another team or whether Phoenix reverses course and provides an opportunity for Bender, he’s patiently waiting for his next shot.
“You can’t ignore the downs. You have to work through them,” Bender said.