Dragan Bender's rise to the top of the 2016 NBA draft discussion was steady and well-documented. From Eurocamp 2013 and the 2014 (Under 18) European Championship to his MVP showing at Basketball Without Borders in 2015, Bender has gradually strengthened his image and built up his NBA resume.
And he's still just 18 years old.
Bender doesn't see too many minutes with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but this season represents just a small piece of the scouting pie for evaluators who've been watching him for quite some time.
With an NBA out in his contract this summer, according to Sportando.com, Bender should be available to come straight to the United States. He's the top wild card in this year's draft and a good bet to be one of the first five players taken in June.
|Dragan Bender 2015-16 Numbers (Euroleague, BSL, Eurocup)|
In 33 total games between Euroleague, the Israeli Super League and Eurocup, Bender averaged just 12.1 minutes. The good news: Scouts have been watching him since 2013.
During the 13 games in which he played at least 15 minutes, Bender averaged 9.6 points. He also knocked down 26 of his 65 three-point attempts (38.5 percent) in 2015-16—a key stat highlighting his potential as a stretch big in the NBA.
Unfortunately, his 7.3 rebounds per 40.0 minutes is abnormally low for a big man, though it's also from a relatively tiny sample size.
At 7'1", Bender blends NBA center size with a forward's mobility. He's not explosive, but he's light on his feet and nimble with just enough bounce.
His identity in the pros will ultimately revolve around jack-of-all-trades versatility.
For a teenager his size playing pro ball, Bender has a good-looking shooting stroke with range. His mechanics and 2.5 threes per 40 minutes are highly encouraging. It's easy to buy his jumper as a future everyday weapon.
A convincing jumper, along with basketball IQ, suggests Bender isn't such a such a risky gamble.
When given the ball and space on the wing, he's shown he can put it on the floor and finish with body control off one foot. He's also a threat to take a defensive rebound coast-to-coast or initiate the break.
Otherwise, Bender picks up buckets by running the floor, cutting baseline and pick-and-rolling—three areas of the game that showcase his coordination. With his back to the basket, he's capable of shaking one way and tossing a hook shot over the opposite shoulder.
He's also a strong passer with an understanding of where and when to send the ball. It shows up on outlets, entries into the post and darts thrown to cutters.
Bender offers intriguing defensive potential as well. Though not necessarily a rim protector, he blocks shots from the weak side. Plus, he's demonstrated the foot speed to switch onto quicker players around the perimeter. Occasionally, he'll make a textbook closeout by running the three-point shooter off the line and forcing him to pass.
Bender weighed just 216 pounds at last summer's Eurocamp. He's still younger than most NCAA freshmen, and he's gone up against older pros overseas, but a lack of strength and explosiveness shows up in crowds and around the hoop.
He shot 49.0 percent inside the arc (only 50 percent of his total made field goals were two-pointers) and registered a well-below-average total rebounding percentage of 11.5 percent, per RealGM.com.
In the half court, Bender isn't a go-to option and doesn't project as a one-on-one scorer.
Will he be strong enough to finish, rebound and defend in the paint? Is he fluid and quick enough off the dribble to play around the perimeter?
Kristaps Porzingis/Joakim Noah (Blend)
Realistically, there isn't any one player who compares to Bender. Like Porzingis, Bender likes to operate around the arc with three-point range and the ability to make a move off the dribble. He lacks Porzingis' mid-range game and isn't as explosive, but Bender can still get up and down the court to effortlessly finish above the rim.
Like Noah, he's a smart passer facing up from the elbows or the top of the key. He's also shown he can switch defensively. Proving he can drop back in rim protection for stretches would boost his NBA value.
Nikola Mirotic/Jonas Jerebko
"My idol is Toni Kukoc," Bender told David Pick for Bleacher Report. "I used to look up to him, but now I learn from Dirk Nowitzki and Nikola Mirotic. I like to steal some of their moves and use them in my game."
Offensively, similarities to Mirotic revolve around shooting, limited in-between games and the ability to attack closeouts. But like Jerebko, he's the type of utility player who can give you a little bit of everything at both ends—just not creating offense.
You don't hear of 7-footers that cover this much ground. He can shoot the three and run the floor like Porzingis. And he can handle it, pass and potentially defend like Noah.
If he can tie the versatility together without being held back physically, we could be talking about one of the game's most unique big men. Bender will have the chance to become an All-Star role player, similar to how Draymond Green did.
There is a hint of bust potential tied to Bender, given the fact he doesn't specialize in any one area. But assuming his shooting percentage isn't fluky, the jumper, size, athleticism and intelligence pushes his floor above ground level.
In a worst-case scenario, he settles into the league as a do-it-all glue guy for a supporting cast. But Bender is not the next Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitishvili or Jan Vesely.
Bender's stock should benefit from a weak draft. His potential is likely to carry him into the top five, as teams will be more interested in rolling the dice on upside than settling. Besides, his skill level, coordination and feel for the game suggest the risk isn't all that high.
I'd still stop short of pegging Bender as a future All-Star. He lacks scoring ability, and though Green does as well, we're talking about two different levels of strength and toughness.
A safe prediction would have Bender evolving into a high-end role player, the way Tristan Thompson did in Cleveland.