Dragan Bender And Marquese Chriss Are Raising The Ceiling In Phoenix

The Suns have been adrift ever since Steve Nash left town, but a pair of gangly, versatile, high-ceilinged lottery picks just might be a foundation in Phoenix.

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Jul 14 2016, 1:53pm

Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

One year after Phoenix's dream of a LaMarcus Aldridge and Tyson Chandler tandem was dashed, and two years after a string of disastrous transactions that saw the franchise's All-Star point guard count go from two to zero, the Suns have restocked their lineup with two of the most versatile and intriguing frontcourt prospects in the 2016 NBA draft: Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. For a team that's attempting to renovate on the fly, betting on length and youth is probably the best play available.

As the two headliners on Phoenix's Las Vegas Summer League squad, the duo has not yet provided much more than an antsy, foul-prone mirage of potential. But the outline of something special—and Phoenix's path to upper-tier legitimacy—is visible with them in place. For a team trying to escape the league's late-lottery doldrums, a little bit of hope goes a long way.

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Given that the Suns have invested $100 million over the next 3-4 years in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and that 19-year-old shooting guard Devin Booker appears to have a ceiling of "Klay Thompson with an imagination"—he's really good at basketball, is what I'm saying—using two lottery picks to reconstruct the frontcourt makes sense. Bender is a 7-foot-1 prodigy from Croatia who moves like a guard and started playing professional basketball when he was 15. Chriss is pure energy, crackling within a 19-year-old body that has very few limitations.

In three Summer League games, Bender's PER was 1.9; even with the usual caveats about disregarding summer stats, that's obviously not great. Still, Bender will ideally establish himself over the next decade as an unbreakable kickstand: a taller, longer, better-shooting Shawn Marion who won't ever let the Suns topple over. He can make teammates better and fill crevices all over the floor by himself. Bender may never become a franchise player, but his position-less agility should complement whoever eventually fills that role.

Booker may well be that guy, but it's possible that it could be Chriss, too. A lottery ticket that fell into Phoenix's lap when the Sacramento Kings decided to trade back in last month's draft, Chriss may be nothing more than Amar'e Stoudemire karaoke. Or, he may be an epic stretch four who was born to thrive in today's league, where athleticism and outside shooting have never been more important. He's a teenager with three Summer League games to his name—he's averaging a double-double, which, again, you should disregard—and it would be foolish to read too much into his future.

"Don't worry kid, you won't actually have to play in Sacramento." Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever Chriss eventually becomes, though, you can already see some of the ways he and Bender can help each other out, especially on the defensive end.

"We both can switch on the perimeter and stay in front of the guards," Bender said after his summer league debut against the Portland Trail Blazers. "And on offense we can spread the floor and shoot the ball, so I think the two of us being in the same position—3 and 4, or 4 and 5, whatever it is—is going to help us in the future."

In that first game, the Suns played Bender at small forward and had him shadow Portland's Luis Montero, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard. Up next was Jaylen Brown, the athletic small forward prospect Boston selected one pick ahead of Bender. He stuck with them both reasonably well, sliding his feet, and keeping his arms up so as to snuff out any obvious path to the basket. At the risk of belaboring the obvious: this is a seven-footer who debuted at small forward and looked comfortable defending guards. That's not normal!

Of course, abnormal is nothing new for Bender. "I'm playing 3 and 4 right now on this team and it suites me a lot," Bender said. "I was playing basically the same role with Maccabi [Tel Aviv, a prominent Israeli professional team] last season, but in this team over here I have more ball in my hands and I can create more, so I love it so far." Physicality has been an issue for Bender in Las Vegas, particularly on mid-air collisions at the rim—he has 17 fouls and only one blocked shot—but he's still only 18 years old, and 18-year-old bodies grow. It's easy to imagine Bender, with a year of confidence and NBA-grade strength training under his belt, emerging as a force.

When asked what part of Bender's game most stood out after his first game, Booker quickly tabbed his teammate's clairvoyant instincts. "IQ," he said. "That's what I like a lot about players overseas, they know how to play the game. They know where to be. Think the little adjustments, they don't run the play exactly how it's supposed to be run. They throw in their little twist, and it works out well because they know the game."

Enter the Dragan. You get it. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Bender's only shooting 30.8 percent from the floor, but he knows how to make himself available on timely cuts into open space. His shots and decisions aren't rushed, and so much of the game clearly comes naturally to him. Chriss, on the other hand, tends to force his hand. He adores spinning into the paint, but it's already a predictable move that will get swallowed whole by NBA defenses paying him even the slightest bit of attention next season.

After shooting 35 percent from the outside in college, Chriss has yet to make a three in Las Vegas; like Bender, he's fouling everybody in sight. But he can also turn the hardwood into a trampoline, and as a thunderous tip dunk waiting to happen, he'll bring raw spirit to a team that remains thin at the position he's supposed to fill. "I didn't know [Chriss] was that versatile with the ball," Suns rookie point guard Tyler Ulis said. "But he showed us some great things."

As presently constituted, Phoenix is a mashup of declining veterans and developing talent. Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, Booker, and Alex Len are all still on their rookie contracts. P.J. Tucker, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, and Tyson Chandler are on the wrong side of 30. Only Bledsoe and Knight are in their primes, and a majority of the roster is signed beyond next season. The team's floor is low, and its ceiling, at least at this stage in its renovation, is probably Sparky But Flawed Eight Seed.

Bender and Chriss may not contribute at a high level right away, but they make it fun to daydream about the Suns' future. For an organization that has been lost at sea ever since Steve Nash was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, a better tomorrow beats a middling today. There's still a lot of construction left to do, but no team can build anything that will last without a foundation, and the Suns may finally have one that's worth the wait.

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