OVERVIEW: Dragan Bender is the youngest player entering the 2016 NBA Draft, having just turned 18 in November. But despite his youth, the big man had to grow up fast after signing a seven-year deal with the Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv at the age of 16. Bender’s playing experience includes participating in the under 16 European Championships in 2012 and playing professionally in the Croatian league when he was just 15-years-old.
While Bender has a wealth of potential, my biggest concern regarding his development is the inevitable comparisons to Knicks 2015 lottery pick Kristaps Porzingis that will be bandied about. Many teams and fans around the league will likely look to Porzingis’ solid rookie campaign and use that as the benchmark for what Bender should provide when he enters the NBA. Such lofty expectations may place undue pressure on the young big man and could serve to stifle his natural progression as a player. Bender is in no way as polished as Porzingis was when he entered the league, and it will almost certainly take him a few seasons to become a productive player in the NBA.
STATS: In 35 games Bender averaged 4.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and and o.6 assists in 12.2 minutes per outing. His slash line on the year was .426/.368/.719.
STRENGTHS: Thanks to the NBA’s growing obsession with stretch-fours, Bender’s combination of size and skill will certainly make him a desirable commodity this June. His measurements are impressive, with Bender standing a shade over seven-feet, owning a 7’2″ wingspan and a ridiculous standing reach of 9’3″. Bender isn’t a freak athletically, but he is extremely agile and has demonstrated solid footwork for such a young player. He is quick enough to guard opponents on the perimeter and is a hard-nosed player who doesn’t shy away from contact and competition. Traits that will serve him well once he hits the NBA hardwood.
Bender has worked hard to improve his outside shooting since turning pro, and while his form still needs refining, he appears to be well on his way to having a solid outside game. He is a versatile player who doesn’t need to score to have an impact on a contest, using his high basketball IQ and solid passing skills to help his team be successful. While he will likely be deployed at power forward, or perhaps even center if he bulks up, he is talented enough to play point-forward and facilitate an offense from the high-post.
WEAKNESSES: As with most young big men, Bender’s biggest drawback is his slender frame. While he is certainly no pushover, weighing in at around 225 pounds won’t help him survive the nightly abuse he is sure to receive once he enters the NBA paint area. Bender doesn’t appear to be one to shy away from physical play, which certainly serves to illustrate his competitive nature, but he isn’t nearly strong enough to be effective on a consistent basis versus bigger, stronger and older NBA players. The other concern reagrding Bender is that despite his wide range of skills, there isn’t one aspect of his overall game that can be considered elite at this juncture. There will be a considerable onus on whomever is coaching Bender to properly utilize his talents, which could be difficult until the player matures enough physically to play inside on a regular basis.
(For Part Two of our Dragan Bender Prospect Profile, click here.)