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Who is Dragan Bender?
10:19 | NBA
Who is Dragan Bender?
Wednesday June 22nd, 2016

Confetti rained from the rafters as the buzzer blared. One season after falling to the Dallas Mavericks, the Miami Heat had captured their second NBA championship. LeBron James, at long last, finally claimed his first ring. He coddled the Larry O’Brien and Bill Russell MVP trophies in both arms as the weight of the world finally slipped off his shoulders. “I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio,” he exhaled.

A 16-year-old from New Jersey watched Miami’s celebration in awe. Wade Baldwin IV had starred at Immaculata High School, regularly scoring 30 points on opponents, slicing his way to the rim and draining jumpers well beyond the three-point line. But the statistics suddenly did not satisfy him. Baldwin IV wanted to win. “We were getting beat in the first round of States,” he says. “I just wanted to be athletically dominant and leave a legacy at a school.” He hatched a plan to enter the Jersey history books: Joining old friend Karl-Anthony Towns at nearby St. Joseph’s and recruiting fellow local stud Marques Townes to create their own Big Three.

Baldwin IV and Towns had already developed chemistry, having played AAU together since they were 9 years old. That bond produced mixed emotions within Baldwin during last year’s NBA Draft. He was elated as Towns glided across the Barclays Center stage and shook the commissioner's hand. Then a glare replaced the smile on Baldwin’s face. The Los Angeles Lakers selected Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell at No. 2.

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Russell and Baldwin boast nearly identical frames. As freshmen, the two point guards tallied almost indistinguishable per-40 minute numbers as well. “When you do the measurables and you compare them statistically, I think in his heart of hearts, he convinced himself that he could compete at that level,” says his mother, Monica Baldwin. Next, raw point guard Emmanuel Mudiay came off the board at No. 7 to the Denver Nuggets. Baldwin’s heart sank into his gut. “It was almost, like, embarrassing,“ he says. “These guys are my age, I played against them for X amount of years. You felt like you were of that caliber as well and you just want to get to that point.”

A year later, the 6’4 Baldwin’s dejection has fueled his rise. After powering Vanderbilt back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, Baldwin is primed to hear his named called in the lottery in Thursday’s draft. He’s been projected as high as No. 8 to the Sacramento Kings and doesn’t expect to fall past the Detroit Pistons at No. 18.

Baldwin once seemed destined to play professional baseball. “He could hit a pitched baseball at him at age 2 in our backyard. I have it on video tape,” Monica says. When Baldwin IV was 10 years old, his father, Wade Baldwin III, asked a friend to track the speed of his son’s pitches and watched as the youngster easily topped 70 mph on the radar. “He has a gun,” dad says. Baldwin played all over the field before he quit the sport when he was in sixth grade. “I think he was just bored with it. Just a slower pace,” Baldwin III says. His athletic coordination translated to football. Monica watched him easily strut atop her balance beam at a young age. He glided in the pool and raced past defenders in lacrosse. Come high school, Baldwin IV shined as a wideout on the Immaculata freshman team, hauling in seven touchdowns during their 10-0 season. “He has big hands, he can catch anything,” says Baldwin III. Letters from Syracuse, Connecticut, Penn State, among others, soon arrived.

Yet juggling football and basketball began to feel unrealistic as a brighter future in one sport clearly emerged. Baldwin started varsity immediately in basketball “and just lit it up,” Baldwin III says. In one Christmas tournament outing, Baldwin torched coach Bob Turco’s Notre Dame high school for 35 points. Turco’s brother, Dave, St. Joseph’s longtime head coach, watched in awe from the crowd, observing Baldwin’s demolition.

In order to play for Turco and join Towns, though, Baldwin needed to surrender his fall sport. The decision helped launch his journey to the NBA Draft.

Prioritization had been stressed to Baldwin IV throughout his childhood. Monica will soon retire after a 27-year career in the FBI, including 14 as a street agent investigating street crimes, violent crime, and warehouse hijackings. Baldwin III has already completed his 27-year stint in the DEA, going undercover in New York and later spending six years patrolling the Bahamian waters for traffickers. They met at Southern Connecticut State University and both entered law enforcement. “Every day we left the house, we were never guaranteed to come home,” Baldwin III says.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

The summer before his sophomore year of high school, Baldwin IV attended a nine-day FBI National Academy youth leadership program. Baldwin wrote an entry essay about piloting a basketball team, gaining admission as the New Jersey representative for an international class of just 60 students. He woke at 5 a.m. each morning for physical training—running, push ups, sit-ups, takedown tactics—followed by hours of classroom material and reading comprehension. The program featured a stop in D.C. for meetings with elected officials and ran the students through the notorious Yellow Brick Road challenge, which requires clearing the five-foot wall included in every cinematic military training montage. Baldwin IV finished the course first.

The lessons Baldwin IV learned from the program helped him at St. Joe’s, where he accepted a supporting role to Towns. “If he didn’t want to win, he could have gone anywhere else and played for any other school and dropped 30, 35 points a night,” Towns says. “But it just shows the character that Wade Baldwin, sacrificing a lot of himself for wins.” Instead of trying to break down defenders off the dribble, Baldwin slashed to the rim, fed Towns off pick-and-rolls and located open shooters around the perimeter. St. Joe’s reached the New Jersey Tournament of Champions finale in the Big Three’s first season and claimed the crown the next. Baldwin’s Miami-inspired vision had truly become a reality. “Whether we traveled down to North Carolina for Christmas, or any event we went to, no matter how far away we were from New Jersey, those three were definitely the draw,” Turco says.  

Still, Towns’ reputation loomed large, fueling the fiery competitor already brewing within Baldwin. Towns had verbally committed to John Calipari and Kentucky as a sophomore and played for the Dominican Republic National Team before Baldwin even transferred. In scrimmages during practice, Turco would often slate Baldwin and Towns on opposing teams. “Wade would start out covering a guard and all of a sudden, we get to game-point and I look around and there he is on Karl,” Turco says.

After winning the state title as seniors, Towns and Baldwin met once again as college freshmen, when Vanderbilt faced Calipari’s historic team in Rupp Arena. Late in the first half of the Wildcats’ eight-point win, Towns rejected Baldwin’s shot. “I was super pissed,” Baldwin says. “I still hold that closely,” Towns says, laughing.

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The defeat was one of several humbling moments in Baldwin’s season. It took a while for him to crack Vanderbilt’s starting lineup as he navigated his way through head coach Kevin Stallings’s system. But the process allowed him to round out his offensive game. Baldwin fine-tuned the jump shot he rarely used in high school, and he left Nashville a career 42.2% three-point shooter. “I didn’t think he was a sure-fire NBA player when we signed him,” Stallings says. “But, it became pretty apparent towards the end of his freshman year.”

Baldwin gobbled up opposing SEC guards, utilizing his 6’11’’ wingspan to eliminate passing lanes. The defensive tools are what truly make him an elite prospect in the modern NBA. In a perimeter-oriented league featuring a pace-and-space style, a sharpshooting point guard who can guard opposing lead ball handlers might be the most essential cog to a winning team.

NBA personnel have also taken note of the competitiveness Towns brought out of him in high school. “He wants to be the greatest player who’s ever played and he’s not gonna stop until he makes that goal happen,” Towns says. Baldwin has carried the chip on his shoulder from St. Joe’s all the way to the draft. “It’s all how you channel it,” Baldwin says. “You can’t be too much, but you gotta know your abilities and you gotta be confident.”

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