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A disappointing first NBA season for Phoenix Suns rookie big man Dragan Bender hit another speed bump on Wednesday, with the team announcing that he’ll be on the shelf for a while after undergoing “a successful routine arthroscopic procedure on his right ankle to remove a bone spur.”
The 19-year-old Croatian 7-footer and No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 draft had missed seven of the Suns’ previous eight games with ankle pain. has caused him to miss seven of eight Suns games. Initial reports suggested he would miss three months after going under the knife, and with the Suns sitting some 7 1/2 games behind the No. 8-seeded Denver Nuggets in the embarrassing race for the West’s final playoff spot, it looked as if Bender’s freshman year would be finished.
AZ Central’s Doug Haller, though, disputed the reports originating overseas, saying that a return this season had “not yet been ruled out” by the Suns. Local radio host John Gambadoro relayed similar intel:
… and the Suns confirmed as much Wednesday night. A four-to-six-week absence would put Bender on the shelf for between 12 and 20 games, but could still enable him to come back for the final few weeks of the season.
Bender worked up until recently as the NBA’s youngest active player, a role Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram will dutifully take over. Just turning 19 in November, the Croatian center/forward averaged 3.2 points on 37 percent shooting in 38 games with the club, playing just 12.7 minutes per game for the 16-36 Suns.
Touted as an athlete who would eventually contribute an inside/outside game, Bender has shown flashes of both touch and frame in short spurts, but he’s also shot just 32 percent from long range despite pushing up more than half his shot attempts from distance. His turnover and rebounding rates are abysmal.
He also recently turned 19.
Bender is a painfully thin prospect (where have we heard that before) who was known to be far from NBA-ready upon his drafting into the NBA last June. The Suns, already playing 34-year-old veteran center Tyson Chandler 28 minutes a night, are still struggling to find time to play 2013 lottery big man Alex Len (working in his fourth season), so minutes were not always going to be on the table for the still-developing Bender, even during the last sputtering weeks of a lottery-bound season.
The right ankle injury occurred on Jan. 22 against the Toronto Raptors, following a four-game stretch that saw Bender contribute 14 points, 12 rebounds, 14 fouls and three blocks in 69 minutes of total play. An attempt to play on the balky ankle on Feb. 1 resulted in a five-point, five-rebound night for the rookie in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, but he’s missed three contests in the days since.
The Suns, still outfitted with Len and fellow rookie big man Marquese Chriss, will no doubt be in the lottery again this spring. The announcement comes two weeks before the NBA’s Feb. 23 trade deadline, at which the Suns might opt to tear down their veteran core by moving players like includes Chandler and the oft-ignored Brandon Knight.
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