Milwaukee Bucks: Dragan Bender’s patience starting to pay off

BROOKLYN, NY - JANUARY 18: (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY - JANUARY 18: (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

After seeing the vast majority of his minutes on assignment in the G League this season, Dragan Bender has started to flash his role playing potential with the Milwaukee Bucks over the last week.

Ever since coming to the Milwaukee Bucks last summer, it was clear there were grand plans for Dragan Bender.

Certainly a change of scenery was a necessary move for the 22-year-old after his ups and downs as a member of the Phoenix Suns over the previous three seasons and talk of being a bust increasingly grew after being the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

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And from the outset, Bender viewed the Bucks as the perfect landing spot for him to unlock his skill set and bring him out of his early career limbo, as he talked about during Media Day before the start of the 2019-20 season:

"“It’s definitely a good match. If going towards free agency I could have picked a team, it would have been this one. From the first day I got here, it’s definitely been a comfortable system for me. You know, all these guys made it easy for me, but it’s just easy to play with these guys. You have to be able to shoot the ball in the system they have, but as long as you know your spots on the court, and know the system they’re playing, you’re going to do fine.”"

While Bender viewed the Bucks as a good match prior to his arrival, the seven-footer has had to be very patient to hear his number called within his new surroundings.

And to this point in the season, Bender’s vast majority of reps have come on assignment with the Bucks’ G League affiliate, the Wisconsin Herd. The Croatian international has certainly shined on such occasions when on hand for the league-leading Herd and he was even named G League Player of the Week earlier this month due to his sparking play in Oshkosh.

It’s quite the reality check going from a lottery pick to getting accustomed to life in the G League and all of the differences it comes with compared to life in the NBA, even under the part-time role Bender has taken on for Herd head coach Chase Buford and co. But Bender’s maintained his positivity and clearly had the bigger picture in mind regarding his role within the organization as he told Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this month:

"“It’s great. I think it’s important to get some games down there,” Bender said following the Bucks’ Wednesday shootaround at Chase Center. “As much as we practice, as much as we do playgroups here it’s definitely good to go down there and play games, just go up and down and get that game feel. …“You just go down there with a purpose. You know what you need to do, what you need to improve on. You go down there targeting the same things you’d be doing here with these guys.”"

The bigger picture came into focus when the Bucks elected to fully guarantee Bender’s contract for the rest of the season this year following the league’s deadline to guarantee contracts with partial or non-guarantees two weeks ago. That came after Bender had made three appearances with the Bucks at that stage of the season for a grand total of 29 minutes and 10 seconds of burn.

Now, all of the hard work that Bender has done behind close doors, and with the Herd, has started to pay off over the last week. With backup center Robin Lopez being sidelined for rest purposes as well as picking up an illness, Bender has slotted in as the Bucks’ backup center behind Brook Lopez under head coach Mike Budenholzer.

In his three appearances with the Bucks over the last week, Bender has nearly tripled his minutes on the NBA level this season and has stood as a reliable contributor within the Bucks’ bench mob, especially on the defensive end.

The fourth-year big man has honed his ability to protect the rim in the vein of the Lopez brothers and his verticality defending the basket has been a regular feature when on assignment with the Herd. With two total blocks over this recent string of appearances, Bender currently holds a 50 percent defensive field goal percentage when on the floor for the Bucks this season, per

Combining that with his work on the defensive glass where he holds a 19.6 defensive rebounding percentage, per, Bender has acquitted himself well to the workman-like role as Milwaukee’s emerging reserve center.

On the other side of the ball, Bender’s offensive work has been touch and go at times, even under his minimal role with the Bucks. However, the biggest key to seeing how he can function within the Bucks’ system, that being his 3-point stroke, has translated in his limited minutes as he’s 4-of-9 from downtown (44 percent) with the Bucks this season. With the Herd, Bender has hit 42.6 percent of his 61 3-point attempts through his 10 appearances in Oshkosh.

Although Bender continues to fine-tune all elements of his game as he gets his long-awaited chance with the Bucks during this stretch, the team has been incredibly productive with him on the floor, judging that he’s been a +46 in his 87 minutes of play this season (Bender’s been a +29 over the Bucks’ last three wins).

For the time being, Bender appears in line to resume his sudden role as the Bucks’ backup center for their high-profile meeting with the Charlotte Hornets in Paris Friday afternoon with Robin not traveling with the team as he works his way back to full health from his illness. What his role and overall usage with the Bucks holds beyond the Paris game remains to be seen and it will be interesting to see if Bender’s sporadic minutes on the NBA level become more consistent in any way.

Next. Bucks Roundtable: Confidence approaching All-Star break. dark

There are plenty of questions that Bender still has to prove as he continues to develop his skill set and find a viable role within the Bucks and the NBA at large. But the bigger picture still remains and it’s a little more clearer than where Bender once stood before coming to Milwaukee last offseason.