By John Clayton
Indianapolis, Feb. 26, 2004
On the heels of overcoming the first major injury of his career, Jonathan Bender appears to be coming into his own.
Bender's recovery from training-camp knee surgery was frustrating and long, but since his return to the rotation in three games this week, he has been a difference-maker for a Pacers team in search of a replacement for the injured Ron Artest. Suddenly, Bender is a player playing with unfettered confidence.
“I’m just trying to work my game into the game (Coach Rick Carlisle) plays, his system,” said Bender. “That’s all it’s about right now – getting out there, being real comfortable with my shots and helping the team.”
With Artest out indefinitely, it was hoped that Bender would help the Pacers recoup some of their lost offensive output along with Austin Croshere as the two received additional minutes in Carlisle’s rotation. From the pair, the Pacers have gotten exactly what they’d hoped. From Bender, the Pacers have gotten perhaps more than they could have expected.
Bender is averaging 11.3 points in the three games since his return – all Pacers victories – while playing just 15.3 minutes per game. He has hit 11 of 16 (68.8 percent) of his field goal attempts, including both of his 3-point attempts. The 7-footer has also recorded at least one blocked shot in each of the three games since his return.
“The thing that’s most encouraging to me is that he’s feeling better physically,” said Carlisle. “If you’re distracted by an injury or something like a sore knee, it really makes it hard for you to enjoy other aspects of your game or enjoy the game, period. ... In terms of his play, he’s doing a good job of reading situations and not going too quick. In the past, I think he’s had a tendency to be a little over-anxious and get ahead of himself a little bit. When he takes his time and does the things he’s capable of doing, he’s obviously a very effective player.”
Bender’s surgically repaired right knee had given him problems as he rehabbed throughout the season. He appeared on the active roster for the first time this season in mid-January for three games before being forced back to the injured list with knee soreness. In those three appearances, Bender seemed tentative, averaging just 3.6 points in 11 minutes per game.
”I was always aggressive, but I didn’t always take the chances that I take now as far as putting my whole game on the line,” he said. “It comes with years.
“Whatever I see, I’m going to take advantage of it. If I’ve got a first step on somebody, I’m going to take it. I’m not thinking twice no more. . . . I’ve got to think like, ‘If I didn’t take it, what would happen?’”
In Sunday’s victory over Utah, those chances paid off by putting Bender on the foul line and by getting the Jazz in foul trouble. Bender scored seven of his 11 points from the foul line. His breakaway dunk at the end of the third quarter helped shift momentum toward the Pacers. In Tuesday night’s win over Golden State, Bender’s line told a different story, but the impact was much the same. Bender went to the free-throw stripe only once, but hit 5 of 6 field goal attempts, taking advantage of matchups and driving to the basket.
“That’s big for us. He gives us another weapon off the bench,” said Reggie Miller. “He’s hard to guard. He’s long. He’s athletic. And he’s aggressive taking the ball to the hoop. Most of the time when he’s coming in, if the other team has three team fouls he gets us into the bonus real quickly because of his athleticism. He didn’t play in the first half of the season, so I think he’s trying to make up for lost time.”
That could be bad news for other teams in the league. A refocused Bender with a freakish set of physical skills coupled with a sizable chip on his shoulder could hold one of the keys to the Pacers’ hopes for an Eastern Conference Championship.
“He’s a legitimate 7-feet tall. He’s a legitimate 3-point shooter. He’s a legitimate post guy. He’s a legitimate driver to the basket,” said Anthony Johnson. “There’s a lot of things that he does, sometimes you just, say, ‘whoa.’ It’s just hard to believe.”
But it has been Bender’s inability to consistently combine the magnificent with the mundane that has hampered his career almost as much as his recently injured knee – although that seemed like a different Bender than the one who has performed at such a high level over the past week.
Bender said he is no longer looking behind him – at the knee injury or at four previous seasons in which Bender did little to distinguish himself with a career 5.5-point scoring average, highlighted by a handful of 20-point performances that seemed to be little more than a tease. He said he has trained the same way each offseason. He has overcome the setback of recent surgery. And he’s moving forward now at a rapid pace.
“Eventually, it has to come out,” Bender said of the work he has put in over the past few years.
And this, he added, is a new beginning.
“Two years and this year and two years before that,” Bender said, shaking his head. “I’m not looking at all that no more, I’m looking at a fresh start right here.”