Dragan Bender had been one of the most scouted European prospects in years, a 7-foot Croatian inspiring lofty comparisons. He was drafted No. 4 overall by the Phoenix Suns, the youngest player in the NBA, and yet he never evolved into the centerpiece of a franchise renaissance.
Coaches were hired and fired, staffs turned over and the losses piled up. Bender struggled to perform, and now, his Suns career is probably headed into its final season.
The Suns will decline Bender's option, freeing themselves of the $5.8 million salary that he would have been guaranteed in 2019-20, league sources said.
He won't be alone. Sources say Houston is leaning against picking up its option on Marquese Chriss (the No. 8 overall pick in 2016), and Detroit has declined its option on Henry Ellenson (No. 19 overall).
"Of course, I wished they picked up my option but I'm not going to let this stop me from reaching my goals," Bender told ESPN in a text message.
Before the end of business on Wednesday, NBA teams must make decisions on picking up the fourth-year options on the draft class of 2016. In most cases, it's merely a clerical decision to keep control of a first-round pick's slotted salary and proceed toward a future with him. For others, it's the beginning of setting a new course elsewhere.
Between the 2005-'06 season -- when the NBA implemented the two-plus-two rookie contracts -- and 2015, 11.8 percent of lottery picks didn't have their fourth-year options picked up. The list includes No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett in Cleveland, No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor in Philadelphia and No. 4 pick Wesley Johnson in Minnesota.
Bender and Chriss were supposed to be Suns cornerstones, but both will likely become unrestricted free agents next summer. For Bender or Ellenson, there's always the chance to be traded this season. The Suns could re-sign Bender this summer for an annual salary starting up to $5.8 million, but that's a doubtful outcome. New Suns coach Igor Kokoskov has a strong history of player development in his coaching career, and Phoenix can still use the season to evaluate Bender for the possibility of re-engaging on a deal later.
Bender has a chance to choose his own destination next summer. For Bender, the goal will be to find a more stable organization with a willingness to invest in him at a lower salary for the long view. The pressure of getting chosen fourth overall in the draft will subside outside of Phoenix, and it will become easier for Bender to work his way through expectations that'll no longer dictate he has to become a star.
"I am 20, and I will keep working to be the best NBA player I can be and make it in this league whether it's with Phoenix or another team," Bender told ESPN.
Bender averaged 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 25 minutes a game last season but has fallen out of the playing rotation this season.