It’s draft season. By now, the major players at the top of everyone’s boards are no secret. But you may be less familiar with Dragan Bender.
The 7-foot Croatian forward is nearly universally projected as a top-five selection, gifted with a dizzying array of skills for his size. He’s ready to make the leap from Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and while he may be a couple of years from reaching his potential, his long-term upside compares well with nearly every top prospect in his class.
Ahead of the draft, you can get to know Dragan Bender with a new SI Film. Here are five things to know about Bender before he officially joins the NBA>
He’s the youngest player in the draft
Bender was born on November 18, 1997, which means he is almost exactly the same age as the movie Starship Troopers and Spice World, by the Spice Girls. He will be 18 years, seven months and five days old on June 23, the night of the draft. This makes him very young, and makes me contemplate my own mortality. Anyway, NBA teams savor every last bit of development time they can get with a player, and this makes Bender especially appealing. He may not have had the chance to flash his skills in terms of gaudy college production, but he’s well ahead of his age curve and younger than some prospects in next season’s draft.
He broke out at the 2014 U18 European Championships
SI’s Luke Winn was on hand in Turkey that summer as Bender scored 34 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and added two assists, two blocks, two steals and no turnovers against Lithuania. This was as a 16-year-old playing against the best 17 and 18-year-old competition on the continent. He had already signed a seven-year deal with Israeli power Maccabi Tel-Aviv. Bender went on to post two near-triple-doubles later in the tournament, with 21-17-9 and 14-10-9 lines added to his resume, just an assist short both times. He was the best player at the tournament, and as Luke determined, by the numbers, the best passing big man at the tournament since 1996.
He’s already embroiled in shoe politics
One year later, Bender left the FIBA U19 World Championships in Greece early over a sneaker company dispute. Sure, it’s fun to bandy about shoe-related conspiracy theories. It’s exciting to wonder why the hell Worldwide Wes is wherever he might be, and why. And I guess it’s interesting to hear about Ben Simmons picking out his first shoe deal. But these things manifest themselves in concrete ways, too, starting from the AAU circuit to high school all star games to college recruiting, and yes, all the way across the pond.
Bender never once suited up in the tournament because the Croatian national team was newly outfitted by Jordan Brand. Bender had his own adidas deal already. He was the main event for NBA scouts, the biggest attraction, and yet Croatia wouldn‘t let him wear the three stripes, just as Bender’s camp wouldn‘t budge on him donning the famous Jumpman. They hit an impasse. It was a big deal. He didn’t play. Croatia finished second to the United States. And again, Luke Winn was there to tell us about it. Basketball is fun, but at the end of the day, it’s a business.
His brother plays for Maryland
As SI’s new mini-documentary details, Bender and his brother, Ivan, left Bosnia and Herzegovina as kids to move to Split, Croatia, and join Nikola Vujcic’s basketball academy. While Ivan opted to play for Mark Turgeon and the Terps—he just completed his freshman year, and saw minimal playing time in a crowded frontcourt—Dragan stayed back and opted to join Maccabi and develop there.
Ivan dealt with an early-season eligibility-related suspension, and has also had knee issues. He’s also part of the Croatian youth system, which has churned out an impressive generation of prospects, including Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja, 76ers draftee Dario Saric and draft prospects Ivica Zubac and Ante Zizic. Ivan should be due for added playing time with Diamond Stone, Jake Layman and Robert Carter all turning pro this season.
He is not Kristaps Porzingis
There’s a frustrating but inevitable instinct to compare Bender to Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, another European 7-footer and one who took the league by storm last season. Please, please refrain from doing this. It’s a little lazy and does a disservice to both guys. Porzingis uses his size, length and power to make an impact around the basket and looks increasingly a threat from three point range and as a screener. He’ll catch lobs. He’s super fun. We all know this.
Bender’s of a different ilk. I had the chance to watch him play across three days of Basketball Without Borders’s All-Star weekend camp in 2015. He was inarguably the best player in a crop that included dozens of the world’s most interesting international prospects. Bender is more slender and perimeter oriented than Porzingis. He’s more comfortable putting the ball on the ground. He can shoot it and should be able to do some things on the inside as he bulks up, but his calling card is his versatility and his passing ability at his size. This is the crux of his allure. Watching overly-skilled guys like Draymond Green and Karl-Anthony Towns, once nominally “post players,” step outside, away from the block and influence the modern game has every team hoping for a guy like that. It’s why 6'10" Ben Simmons might be the No. 1 pick—not because he’s a scorer (he isn’t, by nature), but because he can move the ball and make plays for others at his size.
Depending where he lands, Dragan Bender may not log many meaningful minutes at all next season. But it’s his understanding of the game, ability to be a cog in a modern offense, and potential to change the game and dictate matchups at his height that makes him so intriguing. Appreciate what Bender is, what he might be and where basketball is going.