PROJECTED DRAFT RANGE: Bender is a likely top five pick, with Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress slotting him No. 3 overall and Chad Ford of ESPN.com ranking him fifth on his big board. The 18-year-old is the second best power forward in the draft after Ben Simmons, according to Ford (Insider subscription required), though he is likely to take far longer to bear fruit at the NBA-level than the LSU freshman. Bender is going to face some competition from Henry Ellenson (Marquette) and Marquese Chriss (Washington) to be the second four selected in the draft lottery, though neither of those big men have quite as high an upside as the young Croatian.
RISE/FALL: While Bender is likely to face some potentially unfair comparisons to Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis, the success the Latvian enjoyed in New York this past season should prevent Bender from slipping too far in the draft lottery. With the NBA moving further away from the role of the traditional big man each passing season, Bender’s combination of size and skill makes him a rather desirable commodity among teams.
It wasn’t surprising in the least that Bender chose to skip this week’s NBA Draft combine in Chicago, as most of the projected top five selections generally avoid the risk of a poor showing at the event. The big man wasn’t likely to play his way into the discussion of the No. 1 overall pick this week, so it was wise to hold off on giving the majority of NBA executives their first in-person look at his skills. Bender should shine in the highly controlled settings his individual showcases will take place in, and cultivating an air of mystery can only serve to aid his cause.
The spot where Bender will ultimately be selected at will come into greater focus after the results of Tuesday’s draft lottery are announced. While he is certainly an intriguing player, a number of teams picking in the top 10 have more pressing needs and may lack the necessary patience to take on a project like Bender, who is almost assuredly going to spend more time in the D-League than on the NBA hardwood in 2016/17. I can see him going as high as No.3 overall and find it difficult to envision a scenario where he falls past the seventh selection.
FIT: While there aren’t many teams in the league that couldn’t use a versatile big man like Bender, the most likely landing spot for him will be with the Suns. Phoenix desperately needs to find a mobile power forward who can stretch the floor on offense and are a franchise that can afford to exercise patience with Bender. The Suns have an 11.9% chance at snagging the top pick this June, but the more likely outcome is that the franchise will end up in the No. 3 to No. 5 range, which is the perfect spot to pounce on Bender. The other teams potentially drafting ahead of the Suns are the Sixers, Lakers and Celtics, none of whom seem like a logical fit for Bender given the development time he will require. My prediction, barring any unforeseen event, is that Bender ends up in Arizona with the Suns.
FINAL TAKE: The success rate in the NBA for young international players taken in the lottery hasn’t been all that outstanding traditionally, which makes gambling a top five pick on Bender a risky proposition. But the success of Porzingis and the ever-improving competition level overseas lend some hope that Bender can duplicate the Knicks’ rookie’s success this season. The increasing demand for perimeter-oriented big men in the NBA certainly makes Bender an intriguing and valuable commodity, though he will require ample time in the gym, weight room and D-League before he is likely to reward the franchise that selects him.
(For Part One of Bender’s prospect profile, click here.)