The news that the Phoenix Suns won’t pick up the option on Dragan Bender is far from shocking but, with him being just 20 years old, there’s still time to rebuild the game of the young Croatian according to Emmet Ryan
The signs really were there the year before Dragan Bender went to the NBA. If we thought Mario Hezonja suffered from insufficient activity in the year prior to his leap, Bender’s countryman had the misfortune of being young and at FC Barcelona, then we really should have taken a deeper look at that final season with Maccabi Tel Aviv before Bender got drafted.
It was rough. Maccabi was an utter mess, with its worst ever performance in the Euroleague era to the point that it ended up dropping to Eurocup for the only time in its history. Every was a mess and nobody had any idea what they were doing. It was through this morass that Dragan Bender tried to hone his game at Europe’s top tier before taking his game to the NBA. His usage was insignificant as the Israeli giant hit a nadir it is still recovering from.
That’s what the kid was leaving so he should have been thrilled to land in, checks notes, hoooo boy. Phoenix should have been the perfect place for him to get to, it’s not like he was getting drafted by the Kings or the Magic. This isn’t a famed Spurs type organisation but it’s generally been competent. The timing of Bender getting there, as part of a rebuild, should have been great but there’s been plenty of movement in coaching and front office through his time there. A player who was in dire need of a stable situation so he wouldn’t think basketball is a constant state of stress and drama, was in a place with no shortage of either.
Now, those are the parts that were outside of his control but it’s way too kind to simply say he was doomed. Bender came over having rode that wave of hype. He was still a kid but he had to expect the pressure would be turned all the way up from the off, especially with the physical tools at his disposal. He’s certainly struggled in the heat of the limelight and moreso as it faded from him. The cool shadow he has moved into comes as the Suns look to be ready for another turnaround and they are ready to move on from him.
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At 20, 21 by season’s end, Dragan Bender is desperately close to being a cautionary tale and that is ridiculous.
What Dragan Bender needs is calm and focus. Calm, to make him enjoy basketball again. Focus, to make him rebuild his skill set. Physically there’s too much for someone smart not to want to at least take a chance. Belief in his game is hardly the issue, I’m sure he believes he can be great. No, it’s the doubt that you’ve got to fix with any player in a rut. The fear that for all the capacity he has within, it just won’t work out. He needs to learn to live with doubt, that it’s a neighbour and can be a friend. It is a tool that can be reforged into wisdom or it can lead to paranoia if allowed to go unchecked.
The logical home is San Antonio because everyone is boring when it comes to reclamation projects but it’s far from the only place where on, what will be a really low contract, he offers value. He’s hardly seeing the floor as it is and there’ll certainly be some interest from back in Europe where he could be seen as a natural fit for a European reclamation project. There’s certainly plenty to be said for that but that’s both too comfortable and excess pressure at the same time. The comfort is in just accepting that, at 21, he’s best off packing up and forgetting the adventure. The pressure will come from anyone who signs him expecting him to be better than he has been over the four seasons prior (including this one) within a few games of suiting up.
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The money he gets in his next contract should be the least of Bender’s concerns. He’s 7’1″ and 225lbs of unfulfilled potential but he’s also at the front end of his career. He has time to cash in back home later if things don’t work out at his next gig. Someone is going to keep paying him a reasonable amount of money somewhere to play basketball until he is in his mid 30s. That needs to be clear, he can stink up every floor but there’s no shortage of GMs in this sport across the world who’ll at least give him high six figures annually.
That should be the comfort he pockets, knowing that he has time to grind, to rebuild his game, to refine the kinks, and to learn to enjoy it again. Rock out in the G League for a season with the next contract if needs be or learn to rebuild on the floor minute by minute, taking each journey onto the floor as a learning experience rather than a cause for panic.
Bender has time, the one person who might need reminding of that is him.
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