He hails from Bosnia and Herzegovina and represents Croatia in international play. He stands at an imposing 7’1″, towering over most of his fellow forwards. He already has two years of professional basketball under his belt at just 18 years of age. He averaged 23 points and nearly 11 rebounds in just 30 minutes of action per game through four games with the Maccabi Tel Aviv Junior Team in the 2014-2015 season. He has greatly improved his perimeter jump shot, with his shooting percentage from three-point range leaping from 26.7% last year to 36% this year. But he’s also missed 13 of his last 14 tries from three-point land. He’s also been unable to average more than a paltry 6 points per game in any of the three leagues he’s played in this year while failing to carve out a solid spot in his team’s rotation. He’s also incredibly light for his height and position, weighing in at just around 225 pounds, and can sometimes be seen getting tossed around the paint by beefier bigs like a wispy blade of grass being buffeted by strong winds.
All of these things make Dragan Bender the most enigmatic prospect in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft. Some proclaim him as the draft’s third best player behind the highly vaunted Simmons and Ingram, comparing him with Knicks rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, while others remain wary of a bust potential, still haunted by the specters of Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili. No matter where you stand on this mysterious prospect, one thing is completely certain: he will be one of the first ten players to hear his named called on Thursday’s draft. Now, it’s just a matter of which team’s hat he’ll be wearing as he goes up for his handshake with Adam Silver. But how did this mysterious player ascend to the top of so many mock drafts, and what exactly will the team that picks him be getting in this cryptic prospect?
Dragan Bender began to skyrocket up draft boards as the 2015-2016 NBA season began to draw to a close and other teams began to shift their attention to the draft. While the rise of Bender’s draft stock was rather sudden, it was far from shocking. Certainly, the surprising success of Kristaps Porzingis’ rookie campaign in New York has helped Bender’s ascension to top prospect status. Fans across the Association have long been skeptical of their teams drafting European prospects with high picks, and their superstitions are not entirely unfounded: only two European players have ever gone on to become All-Stars after being selected in the lottery. So when Porzingis, another tall European prospect who could shoot, was drafted with the #4 pick by the Knicks last year, New Yorkers gathered in the Barclays Center, fresh off a 17 win season, and unleashed a shower of boos on the young Latvian. However, Porzingis soon surprised everyone by turning their heckling into cheers during his games in MSG, ending his rookie year by making the All-Rookie First Team and earning monikers like “Porzingod.” In doing so, Kristaps certainly helped to at least lessen the “bust” stigma once commonly associated with other lanky European players like Bender and allowed the Croatian to rise through the ranks of this year’s draft class.
While Porzingis and Bender have different play styles, NBA scouts and executives are attracted to Bender for some of the same reasons they were to the Zinger. As mentioned earlier, Bender stands at an impressive 7′ 1″, and has a 7′ 2″ wingspan and 9′ 3″ standing reach to boot. Even for an NBA power forward, Bender’s length is elite. Using this incredible length, Bender was able to show great promise as a rebounder. Of course he will have to bulk up to keep from getting bullied in the paint, but he can already grab rebounds over much stronger players because his height advantage over most bigs allows him to snag balls out of the air at their peak after coming off the backboard. Yet although he is so long and lanky, Bender is far from a klutz on the hardwood, and has demonstrated a surprising degree of fluidity and mobility. When running the floor, Bender’s stride is so smooth and seamless that he more closely resembles a wing player than a lumbering big man. His startling speed and quickness on both ends of the floor could prove to be a nightmare for defenders trying to contain him on the fast break and a terror for opponents hoping to score easy buckets in transition. And, from time to time, Bender can uncork an incredible outlet passes down court to a running teammate finish the break that would make Kevin Love jealous and Tom Brady proud.
While Bender’s transition play and natural gifts are certainly valuable assets any team would love to have, he has also displayed a lot of potential for success in the half court. It’s difficult to evaluate his play here based on his stats because he has played only 13 minutes per game this year, but his potential on both offense and defense can be easily seen by watching him play. The one stat category that objectively can show Bender’s growing potency is his three-point percentage. As mentioned earlier, he has improved his three-point shot dramatically this year and even shot 39.2% from that range this season in the Israeli league. Most of these makes come off of catch and shoot looks, where he has improved his shooting mechanics to more effectively drain threes off the hop. As his perimeter shot improved, defenders had to start closing out hard on Bender on the perimeter, which allowed him to display his ability to attack the closeout by driving into the paint. And while Bender is far from an elite finisher around the rim, his ability to convert interior shots in traffic should improve as he gets stronger given his rare physical gifts. Although Bender’s offensive game shows a lot of promise, it is his defense that truly makes him a top prospect. As one should expect from a seven footer, Bender is very adept at blocking shots around the rim, using his good timing and instincts to send back 5.7% of his opponents shots while on the court in the Israeli league. As an added bonus, Bender can also step out to defend players on the perimeter, using his aforementioned quickness to keep up with smaller 4s and even 3s when forced to switch onto them by a pick or some other circumstance.
As far as intangibles go, Bender appears to have a solid basketball IQ. On offense, he is constantly cutting and looking to create second chances by pursuing offensive rebounds. On defense, he has a knack for knowing when to help over to contest or block a shot and always surveys to court to avoid James Harden-esque defensive lapses leading to easy buckets. For an 18 year old, these qualities could be serve him well in his early years in the Association while he makes the tough transition into the NBA.
NBA Scouting Report
Despite all of his incredible upside, NBA teams avoid falling too much in love with Bender and rushing him into heavy action. After watching Porzingis’ fantastic rookie season that saw him finish second in Rookie of the Year voting, many fans may also expect Bender to have the same level of production in this rookie year. While Bender might be able to play some solid NBA minutes as a rookie, expectations that he will live up to the first year standard set by his Latvian counterpart are simply unrealistic. Kristaps stands two inches taller than Bender at 7′ 3″ and weighs 15 more pounds at 240 lbs. Also, when Bender enters the league next season, he will be over a full year younger than Porzingis, meaning that his game will still be more raw compared to that of the Knicks’ now-sophomore. All of that being said, the potential immaturity of Bender’s game should not deter any NBA team with a high enough pick from drafting him tomorrow. Sure, he make need some time before he can produce consistently on the NBA level and may struggle mightily for a year or two, but he is simply too gifted and too promising a prospect to summarily dismiss. That’s the great mystery of Dragan Bender. He may not be the next Porzingis, but he’s certainly not the next Milicic. And for most NBA lottery teams, that should be good enough.
All stats and information courtesy of DraftExpress and RealGM