Milwaukee Bucks: How they can get the best out of Dragan Bender

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 2: (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 2: (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images) /

How can the Milwaukee Bucks get the very best out of Dragan Bender, who was selected fourth overall in 2016 by the Phoenix Suns?

With the signing of Dragan Bender to a two-year deal last Thursday, the unofficial silly season for the Milwaukee Bucks was brought to an end.

All in all, 10 new contracts were signed by Milwaukee, including some new faces joining the cause, some old ones returning on new deals, and two two-way contracts.

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For a time, the Bucks’ roster sat at 14 members and many thought they could enter the season with one roster spot free, with an eye on making further moves once the season progressed. This was proven incorrect, though, as Bender has now taken the 15th spot on the roster on a reported two-year, partially guaranteed minimum deal.

Bender entered the NBA in 2016, after being selected fourth overall by the Phoenix Suns. The 7’1″ Croatian had shown plenty of promise as an 18-year-old while playing in the EuroLeague with Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel.

Many had compared him to Kristaps Porzingis, who was also taken fourth overall in the draft, albeit a year earlier, and also previously played in Europe. The allure of a potential walking double-double, with glimpses of developing shooting and playmaking skill, proved to be too great for the Suns to pass up as they looked to capitalize on their high draft position.

Unfortunately for both Bender and the Suns, the move never really worked out for either side and the fourth year option on his rookie deal was declined at the beginning of last season. Bender missed a total of 36 games during the 18-19 season and saw both his minutes and on-court production decline, thanks both to a hand injury picked up during the season and increased competition with the arrival of DeAndre Ayton.

Many had tipped Bender to return to Europe once his contract with the Suns expired, and he certainly came close to doing so, however he was ultimately handed a lifeline by Bucks general manager Jon Horst.

Horst pounced on what many have come to view as a low risk, high reward move to grab Bender off the NBA’s proverbial scrap heap, and it really does make sense when you think about it.

Bender is a a promising rim defender with his size and length and also has the potential to develop into a capable shooter. In fact, he could even be compared to Milwaukee’s own Brook Lopez who has made himself a mainstay in the Bucks’ starting rotation. Bender isn’t close to Lopez at present, but he won’t have to look very far to find a template worth following for a big of his type. On a two-year, non-guaranteed minimum deal, it’s a flyer that Horst clearly thought was too good to pass up.

Most interesting to all this however is how Bender fits in the Bucks’ system. Bender’s career statistics won’t blow anyone away, but if you take a closer look at them, you can see specks of the potential Phoenix saw back in 2016. In his rookie season, Bender was outmatched both physically and mentally on the court, while last season he was dealing with an injury.

His second year in the league, however, showed much promise and is likely the reason the Bucks took interest. During that season, Bender played all 82 games (the only time he’s done this to date) and averaged 6.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks per game. More interestingly, however, is the fact he made 118 three pointers at a 36.6 percent clip in that season. That would have ranked as the fourth best shooter in Milwaukee last season, even with their new found love affair with the three-point shot.

Being the 14th or 15th man on Milwaukee’s roster, Bender’s never going to be asked to carry the offense next season. But if he’s to find the shooting form that he had during the 17-18 season once again, he will be a perfect fit in Milwaukee. With Mike Budenholzer’s “let it fly” mantra, we know that Bender will be given every opportunity to find this shooting touch too.

With a 7’2″ wingspan to go with his height, Bender also fits the Lopez defensive mold perfectly. Last season, Milwaukee ranked as the best defense in the NBA, with Lopez’s comfort in the team’s drop back coverage key to it all. For the uninitiated, Lopez would drop off toward the paint when defending pick-and-roll coverages, allowing him to defend the rim, and essentially daring his opponent to shoot a less efficient attempt from the mid-range. Bender is physically big enough to match Lopez in this way, and is young enough to learn from both Lopez and the coaching staff.

This is not to say Bender is a sure thing on that end of the court as for all intents and purposes, he has not shown an ability to defend at even an average rate, so far in his career. But all the tools are there, and given the opportunity he may prove to be much better than he understandably appeared on a haphazard Phoenix team.

Bender has never played in this sort of structured and competent NBA environment before. During his three seasons in Phoenix, Bender played under three different coaches with a dismal combined team record of 64-182. Bender now finds himself playing under the current Coach of the Year on a team that won almost as many games last season, as Bender has in his entire NBA career. The culture cultivated in Phoenix was toxic to say the least and a change of scenery might be just what the 21-year-old needs to break out.

Lastly, Milwaukee’s salary cap situation means that Bender will likely be given every opportunity to finish the season in a Bucks’ uniform, if he shows any real positives. Bender’s deal is for two years and, as such, could be continued into next season if he proves his worth. As far as the cap situation goes, Milwaukee has yet to show any desire to be a tax paying team under the current ownership.

As it currently stands, this Bucks’ roster will not push them over the tax threshold and with no major player hitting free agency next offseason, it is likely they will avoid paying again in 2020-21. Bender’s low cap hit makes him an ideal candidate to remain on the roster as a potential difference maker, and one that doesn’t break the bank.

This could all be fantasy, however, and Bender might be off the books before this season is even out. The non-guarantee aspect of this deal ensures that Milwaukee has an easy get-out clause if the relationship sours early on.

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: Get to know Croatian big man Dragan Bender. dark

But Bender has never played on a team as successful, or as well-coached as this current Milwaukee Bucks team. If ever he was going to break through in the NBA, it will be this year, on this team, under this coaching staff. The time is now for Dragan Bender.