by Conrad Brunner
May 16, 2003
By the Numbers: Averaged 17.8 minutes, 6.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.22 blocked shots (second on team). … Minutes, points and rebounds all represented a decline from the 2001-02 season. … Missed 36 games due to a torn left calf muscle that resulted in three separate stints on the injured list. … In 21 games when he played at least 20 minutes, averaged 9.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.14 blocked shots and shot 45.1 percent overall and 43.3 percent from the 3-point line. … In other 25 games, averaged 3.8 points, 1.5 rebounds, 0.44 blocked shots and shot 42.2 percent overall and 26.1 percent from the arc. … Led team with 3.28 blocks per 48 minutes. With enough games played to qualify for the league statistics, would’ve ranked 11th. … Established career highs of 22 points against Utah on March 14 and six blocked shots against New Jersey on Nov. 1.
Playoffs: Despite a relatively strong finish to the regular season, fell out of the rotation, appearing in three games and averaging 11.3 minutes, 5.7 points and 2.3 rebounds on 33.3 percent shooting. Of his 17 points in the series, 12 came in the second half of Game 6 after Boston had built a 20-point lead.
Plus-Minus: During the regular season, ranked 14th at minus-13 (minus-0.3 per game. During the playoffs, ranked fifth at minus-six (minus-2.0 per game).
Contract Status: Begins a reported four-year, $27 million extension next season.
Quote: “I thought (after) my injuries, I came back playing pretty well but the rotations kind of fell off for me towards the end, so I can't say too much about it. I would love to be in there, but I wasn't.”
Analysis: Bender’s season – in fact, his career thus far – was summed up in the final eight games of the regular season. Beginning on April 2 at Cleveland, he scored 21, 2, 15, 1 and 16 points, then totaled five points in the final three games. It is this on-again, off-again nature that continues to prevent Bender from beginning to approach his potential. This was supposed to be something of a breakthrough season for him, but the logjam at small forward and a torn left calf muscle that cost him most of three months took care of that. He added some strength with the intent of moving his game inside, hoping to earn minutes at both forward spots, and it showed up most noticeably in his dramatically improved shot-blocking. A shooter with limitless range and an effortless shot, he remains uncomfortable taking more than two dribbles toward the basket and lacks much in the way of a low-post game. He made strides in learning to move without the ball, offensively, and in playing off the ball, defensively, but those areas still need work.
Crystal Ball: It’s a Catch-22. Until Bender earns regular minutes through consistent productivity, his growth will be stunted. And until the Pacers identify the position that best fits his talents and leave him there, it will be difficult for him to play regularly. Cleary, something has to give.
Final Grade: C-minus.