Small Steps For Maciej Bender
His stat line wasn’t anywhere near that of classmates Lamont West or Sagaba Konate. He still has a long way to go to become a productive player on both ends of the court. However, sophomore Maciej Bender showed some progress – albeit in tiny steps – in West Virginia’s 69-60 win over Pitt on Saturday night.
West Virginia basketball fans have been (im)patiently awaiting progress from Bender. They want results at Internet speed, but that’s not always the way players develop. A classic “Euro” player, Bender was much more comfortable away from the basket in prep school, where bumping and banging in the lane was as rare as a non-fast food meal on the road. When he got to WVU, though, he was asked to add that repertoire to his game – to become the “stretch four” that can shoot from the mid-range, pass the ball from the high or low post and score on the blocks.
Playing with his back to the basket wasn’t his forte, and that became quickly apparent during his freshman season. It also affected his confidence, as he became hesitant with the ball in his hands. Granted, learning how to read teammates’ cuts and make the right decision on where to go with the ball is a challenge in Bob Huggins’ offense, whether it’s in the motion attack or the high-low post game. The learning curve seemed to throw off the rest of his game, to the point where he was mostly an afterthought in the rotation last year, when he got just 148 minutes (6.4 per game), and was a non-factor on the offensive end of the court. He played timidly, passing up chances to attack or shoot the ball.
Entering this season the pressure was on. With the departure of Elijah Macon and the half-year suspension of Esa Ahmad, WVU was desperate for help on the front line. But while Sagaba Konate quickly displayed the improvements he had made in the offseason, Bender continued to struggle. He lost contested balls and rebounds that he had his hands on, and cries of “be strong with the ball” were his constant companions from the bench. However, there have been some bright spots, most notably against Pitt, that could augur for better times in the future.
Catching the ball at the high post in the first half, Bender made a strong ball fake and drove against his opponent, drawing a foul in the process. Later on, he repeated the move, getting another hack as he drove down the lane. In the second half, he rolled off the low post nicely and hit a shot. Those were the kinds of things, coupled with excellent passing and the ability to make mid-range, and eventually even 3-point shots, that earned him recruiting attention, and these were inklings that he could execute them at this level — at least in public view.
This isn’t to oversell where Bender is at the moment. His stat line from the Pitt game — two points, one rebound, one assist one turnover — isn’t an eye-popper. However, they weren’t flukes either. He moves his feet well and can block shots (he’s missed credit for a couple recently) and his passing from the high post can be a big plus for the offense. At 6-10, he can shoot over defenders, and he handles the ball well enough to make those drives from the key, so long as he doesn’t try to challenge guards to do so. Most importantly, he can spell Konate inside, and if he can give WVU 10-15 respectable minutes, the Mountaineers will at least have enough to battle some of the good front lines in the Big 12.
The thing to watch going forward is his improvement arc. Will it continue, or flatten out? Was the showing against Pitt an aberration, or a hint of further things to come? It’s one of the keys to for the Mountaineers as they wind up the out of conference schedule next week and enter Big 12 play.