Jonathan Givony is on an 11-day trip through seven countries to evaluate most of the top NBA draft prospects in Europe. On the fifth and sixth days of the trip, he was in Ljubljana, Slovenia, watching projected lottery pick Dragan Bender.
Dragan Bender, who turned 18 just 10 weeks ago, is the youngest prospect in this year’s draft class. He made the difficult decision to leave his home country of Croatia two years ago to follow mentor Nikola Vujcic to Israel, where Bender signed a seven-year contract (with comfortable NBA out clauses) with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Vujcic, a 6-foot-11 center who was a nightly triple-double threat in his playing days, is a European basketball legend and was considered an NBA prospect. He now serves as the team’s general manager.
Bender has always been ahead of his peers, playing at the U16 European Championships as a 14-year-old in 2012 and making his pro debut as a 15-year-old in the Croatian league for KK Split.
Bender played in the Israeli second division last season, where he became the target of many undersized, undertalented and overly physical Americans who were looking to make a name off the ballyhooed 17-year-old. It forced him to toughen up despite his skinny frame. He is playing 12 minutes per game this season in the Euroleague, EuroCup and Israeli league, but has been hampered over the past 10 days with a bone bruise in his foot that has been slow to heal.
He’s nevertheless had some strong moments this season, in domestic-league competition in particular, scoring 16 points in 29 minutes in a rare start against Hapoel Holon and dropping in 15 points in 19 minutes vs. Kiryat Gat.
Bender has tremendous size, measuring 7-foot-1 last summer with a standing reach of 9-foot-3. His frame is still very thin and he has a long way to go, but he seems to be continuously filling out. He is a small forward/power forward right now, but with the direction the NBA is headed, it might not be a stretch to see him eventually developing into a modern-day center. While not a great jumper, Bender is extremely fluid, nimble and light on his feet for a player of his size. He’s regularly tasked with staying in front of significantly shorter small forwards on the perimeter and does not look bad doing so.
Bender’s perimeter shooting has improved dramatically since he arrived in Tel Aviv. He used to shoot the ball with ugly mechanics, but he’s raised his release point and is now shooting cleanly and fluidly. He’s seeing results this season, shooting 21 of 48 (43.8 percent) from beyond the arc. It’s a small sample size, but the way he shoots in practice and with the touch he displays, his jump shot is easy to project as being a significant weapon in the future.
Versatility has always been the key to Bender’s game. He was considered a non-shooter early in his career, yet continuously found ways to be productive with his passing, ball-handling and high basketball IQ. He plays with great confidence and does not hesitate to assert himself in games. Even when most young players would be comfortable parking in the corner and staying out of older teammates’ lanes, Bender comes into Euroleague games looking to make his presence felt.
Bender’s most underrated quality is his toughness. Some may look at his lanky frame and assume he’s just another soft European 7-footer who only wants to hide on the perimeter and jack up 3-pointers, but in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Bender is a competitor who has a relentless motor. He was forced to sit out the initial part of a recent practice we attended to continue to rehab his foot injury (causing most of the dozen NBA scouts in attendance to leave), but begged his way back onto the floor. He proceeded to throw his body around with reckless abandon in five-on-five action. Maccabi’s staff urged him to take it easy, but Bender simply doesn’t know how to do that at this point in his career. He ended up tweaking his ankle after pursuing a rebound, which finally put him back on the sidelines.
“The kid is simply special,” a member of Maccabi’s coaching told The Vertical. “I’ve never been around someone that age with that kind of character. He’s not afraid of anything or anyone.”
In his own words
“When you step onto the court, its either 100 percent or it’s zero. … I did put a lot of work in the weight room, but I tried not to lose agility. It’s important for me not to lose all those things, to keep my quickness and speed. I am definitely not in a rush with the physical part. I am in a rush with all these fundamental things. I know that this physical part will come with the years and the extra work, with food supplements and food programs. Those things are going to come, I am focused on these little things, these little details in my game.”
It’s easy to see that Bender’s frame is far from NBA-ready. That’s not unexpected for someone who just turned 18, and for a bad NBA team coming off a long and miserable season, that’s certainly not ideal. It’s easy to see him struggling defensively early in his career, especially until he finds a position. Like many super-sized perimeter players with unique skill-sets, situations will be important for maximizing his talent. How will he find his scoring in the half-court? Will he ever be able to play a go-to role, considering he’s somewhat of a jack of all trades? A coaching staff willing to tap into his unique playmaking ability as a stretch power forward would likely be beneficial for his development. Continuing to improve the consistency of his jumper will be the key to carving out a role early in his NBA career.
In his own words
“To become NBA-ready I need to improve all the things in my game and try to put them on a higher level, try to put them on an NBA level. It’s really hard to achieve those levels, but I'm really working hard to do it. Those little things are separating me from those players playing in the NBA.”
It’s difficult to find NBA scouts who don’t admire Bender’s talent. It’s easy to project him being the top international player drafted this June should he decide to enter, which sources in his camp told The Vertical he almost certainly will.
Just how high do you select him, though? LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram appear to be the frontrunners to be selected No. 1 overall in June. After that, Bender will likely be right there in the mix to hear his name called.
In his own words
“It's fine for me to be compared to [Kristaps] Porzingis. He's doing really good this season. Basically it’s perfect for every European guy coming to the states. Especially for a big guy. … I am really happy that he's having this amazing season.
“I did play against Porzingis. It was a junior tournament in Barcelona, a Euroleague tournament. I was playing with guys that were born in 1995, so two years older, with my brother. … It was a pretty competitive game. It was really nice. At that point he was also a really good player, with an outside shot and a mid-range jumper.
“We have a lot of similar stuff in our game. We can both shoot from 3-point range, we can lead the break, we can pass the ball, we can defend multiple positions. He has a lot more experience than I do, playing in Europe and in the NBA.”
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