Few players heading into the draft represent the paradigm shift of what NBA teams are looking for out of their big men more than Dragan Bender does.
Bender, a 7'1, 216 pound Croatian big man has spent the last two seasons playing professionally in Israel. He posted a successful 2014-15 season with Ramat Gan in the Liga Leumit, Israel's second division, which saw him average 9.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.1 blocks in just over 28 minutes per night. This season, his first with Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in the Premier League, saw Bender struggle to see consistent playing time against much older competition, getting just over 14 minutes per game in league play, and even less in the few Euroleague appearances he saw action in.
Bender was not in an optimal place for development, as Maccabi Tel Aviv (fresh off losing the Israel league championship last June) struggled through another tumultuous season, again missing out on an Israeli league championship with another semifinal loss. The storied franchise missed the Euroleague Top-16 for the first time in club history, while replacing their head coach mid-season, which hardly solved their problems. All things considered, it's not a shock that Bender had a difficult time carving out a major role for the team at age 18, but it did limit the opportunities NBA executives had to evaluate him.
The first thing that jumps out when looking at Bender is his physical profile. Standing 7'1, with a 9'3 standing reach and a slender 216 pound frame, Bender's profile is both the basis for much of his intrigue, but also for much of his present-day shortcomings.
The biggest improvement in Bender's game has been from the perimeter, where he's shooting 36% from three-point range in combined Euroleague/Eurocup/Israeli League play, including 39.2% in the Israeli league, where he sees the majority of his minutes. He's struggled a bit of late, including 1-for-14 from three-point range over his last seven games, but his improvement from the perimeter is key for his stock, especially in a league that values floor spacing from the front court positions as much as ever.
That recent 1-for-14 stretch showcases some of Bender's streakiness, which may in part be related to a long release which takes some time to get his shot off and can lead to some inconsistency in his shooting motion. Still, it would be impossible not to be impressed by the improvement in Bender's shot, as he connected on just 26.9% of his attempts from deep last season. Even if the overall sample size of just 86 attempts on the season isn't quite enough to give 100% confidence the improvement as fully sustainable, Bender has notably cleaned up his mechanics over the past year, and has always had a soft touch that suggested he'd see improvement down the line, and transferring some of that shooting potential into realized production is a positive development for the 18-year-old.
One area of Bender's offensive profile that he didn't get a chance to showcase in his role with Maccabi is his impressive passing and court vision for a 7-footer. This is a skill set that could prove useful in his future role in the NBA, either as a high-low passer from the top of the key or when attacking the closeouts he'll receive if he continues to improve his shot. Bender uses his size well as a passer, being able to see over the defense thanks to his 7'1 height, can push the ball in transition, and has even shown a knack for timing, such as handling the ball in pick and roll situations. As the NBA prioritizes secondary playmakers and good decision makers at all positions, this area of Bender's game could prove extremely valuable.
In transition is another way that Bender finds a way to contribute, as he has the ability to both push the ball in the open floor off of a defensive rebound and also fill a lane on the break. Bender is quick for his size and gets out of the gate quickly, a transition from defense to offense that is hard for most big men to keep up with.
Outside of that, most of Bender's contributions on the offensive side of the court come off the ball. He shows some ability as a slasher, but that's mostly limited to attacking closeouts, as while he has excellent mobility and fluidity for a seven footer, he's not yet proficient at changing directions or speeds with the ball in his hands. Bender also moves fairly well for cuts off the ball, and will crash the offensive glass on occasion, flying in from the perimeter, even if his lack of size and strength prevents him from being a consistent contributor in this phase of the game.
Where Bender's uniqueness really starts to show is on the defensive side of the court. While Bender was able to block 5.7% of his opponents shots while he was on the court during Israeli League play, thanks in large part to his 9'3 standing reach and solid timing and shot blocking instincts, Bender's average explosive ability as a leaper likely limits his impact in this regard somewhat.
If Bender were limited to a seven footer and block an occasional shot, he'd still have quite a bit of intrigue, even if he might be a little underwhelming as a top prospect. What sets Bender apart is how well he moves his feet on the perimeter, something that is almost unheard of for a player his size. Because of Bender's underdeveloped frame, he struggled mightily to defend post-up players, despite the size advantage he enjoyed most nights. This caused Maccabi to place him on a perimeter player more often than you would typically see for a seven footer. To Bender's credit, he was able to hold his own.
Bender gets in an excellent defensive stance, has great lateral foot speed, uses his length well to deny dribble penetration, and has excellent technique when closing out on shooters. Overall, Bender has a high basketball IQ and impressive toughness on the defensive end for a player of his age, is always engaged and with his head on a swivel, surveying the court, making the right rotations, and providing excellent help defense.
This combination of surprising perimeter mobility, length, and knowledge of how to play the angles and deny dribble penetration could come in handy in the NBA, where defensive versatility and the ability to switch ball screens have become a virtual prerequisite for the modern big man. Bender's unique combination of size, length, and mobility could become a real competitive advantage for a team, particularly as he continues to fill into his frame.
One area where Bender's youth shows up on the defensive side of the court is how frequently he picks up fouls, racking up nearly 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes in Israeli league play. Many of these fouls were a combination of unnecessary reaches, being a second late when cutting off the driving perimeter player, or getting bullied in the post, and are likely more a result of the gap in experience between Bender and his opponents than a long-term concern. Still, it's something to note, and impacted Bender's overall production as a defender for Maccabi last year.
Outside of defending the post, the other area where Bender's high center of gravity and poorly developed frame hurt him defensively is on the glass, where Bender grabbed just 5.9 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes, pace adjusted, and just 15.5% of the available defensive rebounds while he was on the court during Israeli League play. Bender is moved off of his spot far too easily at this point in his development, and doesn't yet show the great anticipation skills to really make up for that. Core strength could be the biggest impediment to Bender finding consistent playing time early on in his NBA career.
The success Kristaps Porzingis enjoyed during his rookie season is both a blessing and a curse for Bender. On the one hand, Porzingis' success helps chip away at the negative stigma associated with perimeter-focused European prospects, something which is undeniably a positive for future prospects in a similar mold. On the other hand, it may create unrealistic expectations for the early part of Bender's career. Porzingis was over a year older than the 18-year-old Bender when he entered the NBA, having received a significant bump in playing time in the tough ACB, seasoning which no doubt helped ease his transition to the NBA.
Looking at Bender as a prospect requires a fair amount of projection, not just because of his extreme youth and lack of playing time, but also because he's just scratching the surface on many of his skills. Despite showing a high base on a diverse set of skills, it could be a couple of years before Bender turns that into consistent production at the NBA level. Still, Bender's skill set, and athletic profile, is so unique, and so coveted in today's NBA, his potential as an impact role player would be very difficult to pass up. By all accounts, Bender is an extremely hard worker who consistently plays the game with a high energy level and great confidence, which should give decision makers confidence he can continue to improve his overall skill level, and the combination of all that should place him near the top of the draft on June 23rd.