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Decoding Dragan: Trade Bait or Potential Rotation Piece?

First half minutes with impressive G-League play is raising eyebrows

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Milwaukee Bucks added Dragan Bender to their roster, it was thought to be much ado about nothing. The low salary and multiple guarantee dates indicated he was going to be gone by the first tip of the season, or maybe part of a trade, but it was a low risk move. Not much was really expected of him; he was just another body on the roster. Bender was sent to play with G-League affiliate Wisconsin Herd on and off this whole season, but has passed the dates where his contract is fully guaranteed. Not bad for Bender considering the missed expectations and fall from grace as the 4th overall pick in 2016. Lately there has been a shift in his role where he is playing meaningful minutes, but what exactly does it mean?

When Bender was assigned to the Wisconsin Herd, there was little fanfare. This was a chance to get a player minutes that he needs while still being close to the organization. To Bender’s credit, he willingly went to Oshkosh and been a great player for the league-leading Wisconsin Herd. In his ten games with Wisconsin, Bender is averaging 21.3 points/game and 8.8 rebounds/game, while shooting a 43% from three. While he has played well with the Herd, he wasn’t suiting up or collecting DNP-CD for much of the season. Bender didn’t make a regular season appearance until November 23rd against the Detroit Pistons, and even then he only played two minutes of garbage time. Overall Bender has only played for the Bucks in five games this season, but it’s his last two games that have raised eyebrows.

On January 14th against the New York Knicks, Bender was called on by coach Mike Budenholzer, went to the scorer’s table and entered the the first quarter. Yes, the Bucks were cruising against the Knicks but Bender was still getting early run. This was new! Part of that was the opening of a front court opportunity with Robin Lopez getting a day off for rest, but Bender would not have been a player anyone would expect to get first quarter minutes. His play didn’t produce much in the highlight reel but he wasn’t hurting Milwaukee either. All in all, a successful outing for Dragan.

Later in the week, this time against the Brooklyn Nets, Bender once again is going to the scorer’s table and getting minutes in the first quarter, in another game that Robin Lopez didn’t play. He took a bit to get going but Bender was a willing shooter from three and George Hill was running pick & rolls with him. Bender’s NBA activity went from spectator crushing it in the G-League to real NBA minutes ahead of guys like D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown.

So what does this mean exactly, or what is the trend? At this point, it appears Bender has at least surpassed D.J. Wilson in the pecking order at center, and is looks to be the backup center when Robin Lopez isn’t playing. The trade deadline draws near, so it could also be a way to showcase him and see if there is a willing partner that also wants to take a chance or would be included with other players. Maybe Bender is getting slowly worked into the fold and could be the guy that we hoped Nikola Mirotic was supposed to be last year. He has the skillset to be useful in the playoffs as a stretch big, but with a shorter rotation that seems unlikely.

There is another consideration regarding Bender’s meaningful minutes, and that’s the future of D.J. Wilson. Despite showing flashes, Bud has not given Wilson meaningful run since the Mirotic trade last year and this year was a chance for him to stake a claim. That hasn’t happened. Bender’s emergence could make Wilson more expendable in a trade. I think the writing is on the wall for D.J, so the next few weeks should be an interesting story to watch.

So what do you think? is Bender’s growing role just Budenholzer trying to see what he has? Will Bender still be on the roster after the trade deadline? Does this mean D.J. Wilson’s days as a Milwaukee Buck are numbered? To the person that DM’d me before the season started saying Bender would be an All-Star, maybe you’re on to something.