This year's youngest NBA draft pick, a native of Croatia, is a graceful big man who will try to make a name for himself in the U.S. even as he still hones his game.
On May 17, the evening the NBA draft lottery was held in New York City, two giant brothers were halfway around the world at the airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. They were waiting for their parents and two suitcases to come off a flight from Zagreb, Croatia. The brothers had obtained special permission to pass through security in order to help their folks navigate the airport. But the brothers were also deeply interested in the suitcases. "It's like we're waiting for some money or some treasure," the older one said.
The younger brother was Dragan Bender, an 18-year-old, 7'1" stretch power forward. At the time, he was playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the most prominent teams in the Euroleague. The older brother was Ivan Bender, a 20-year-old, 6'9" forward on summer break after his redshirt freshman season at Maryland.
The suitcases were normal in appearance, black and green, but they held cargo that isn't exactly common in Israel: a significant quantity of tasty pork products, vacuum-sealed in clear plastic. (Most of Israel's population is either Jewish or Muslim, members of two religions that have traditionally forbidden eating pigs.)The treats were homemade and included bacon, ham, and pr?ut, a thinly-sliced ham which — if done correctly — takes over a year to make.
In a way, Bender is like the pršut his family makes. He needs to properly age before he's a finished product. At 18 years and seven months, he was the youngest player picked in the lottery of the 2016 draft. (The Phoenix Suns took him fourth.) Scouts had few opportunities to watch Bender, which made it difficult for teams to know exactly what they were getting.
Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes for Maccabi this season, making just three starts. He also missed last summer's FIBA U19 World Championships. Bender's shoe sponsor is Adidas. But the Croatian national team is sponsored by Jordan Brand, which refused to let Bender play in his Adidas footwear. So he sat out the tournament.
The understandable predraft question hanging over Bender, then, was how someone who couldn't crack the starting lineup of an Israeli Super League team, and who hasn't appeared in a major international competition since 2014, could be a serious candidate to be taken in the lottery.
The answer begins with what's evident on the court: Bender is 7'1" with a 7'2" wingspan and can gracefully move on the perimeter as a pick-and-pop guy, a ballhandler, and an agile defender. He has a competent (but not deadeye) three-point shot. And he has an advanced feel around the basket, despite lacking the bulk to do damage in the NBA paint. While not a spectacular athlete, he is a smooth one. He has the potential to be the kind of big man that the league currently covets in this era of shooters. There was no other 7-footer like him in this draft.
Two years ago, as a 16-year-old playing for Croatia against opponents one or two years older in the U18 Europe A-Division championships, Bender grabbed rebounds and threw long, baseball-style outlet passes that dropped into the hands of streaking guards. He handled the ball against full-court pressure and in pick-and-roll situations. He made passes from the high post. And he had impressive shot-blocking instincts that compensated somewhat for his lack of strength.
There are plenty of people who believe that Bender is still capable of that kind of play. They feel that he just hasn't gotten a chance to show it on a floundering Euroleague team. (Maccabi has a rich history but the team has struggled recently. That made it hard for the coaching staff to give minutes to a young, developing player like Bender.)
One person who believes in Bender is former Croatian star Nikola Vujčić, who starred for Maccabi in the 2000s. He founded a Croatian basketball academy in '05, which Bender would later attend. He then returned to Maccabi as a front-office employee in '13, bringing the talented youngster with him by signing Bender to a seven-year contract.
"[There are] two types of Dragan," Vujčić says. "One that is before he came to Maccabi, and then one at Maccabi.... Maccabi is not an easy environment for somebody like a kid. Because here only what [matters] is the result. We want to win tomorrow's game, not what will be in three months, especially not what could be in the future."
THE NEXT STEP
Bender is heading to the NBA, and he is not necessarily ready. But try telling that to fans. They have no trouble imagining a wiry Euro 7-footer taking the league by storm, because last season 7'3" Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia did just that. Bender is, in the eyes of many NBA scouts, more advanced than Porzingis at the same age. But the Knicks' star played as a 20-year-old last year. Bender will debut at 18, and that will limit his immediate impact.
Plus, Bender is no Porzingis clone. Porzingis is a pure shooter who loves hip-hop. Bender is a playmaker who likes old-school music and old-school players. His primary hoops influence is Croatian legend Toni Kukoč, the 6'10" lefty who debuted in the NBA with the Bulls in 1993, four years before Bender was born.
"I modeled my game after him," Bender says. A young Bender found VHS tapes of Kukoč at the Vujčić academy. As Bender studied them, it made more sense why his youth coaches were challenging him to function as an oversized point guard. He was captivated by the style of Kukoč, a positionless creator who valued passing over scoring. Bender wore Kukoč's number 7 as recently as the 2014-15 season.
Bender cannot, however, mimic the career timeline of Kukoč, who had eight seasons of European stardom and two Olympic silver medals behind him when he arrived in the NBA. He was a 25-year-old rookie, ready to be tested. "Now is a different time for a young guy," Bender says, explaining that an NBA team might be a more preferable development situation for a teenager than an impatient Euroleague club.
Kukoč also had multiple nicknames: the Spider of Split, Pink Panther, Croatian Sensation. The sound of the name Dragan Bender is so unique and warriorlike that he may have no need for nicknames. But he's had one since his days back home: "Roda." It's Croatian for stork, a soaring, gliding bird that in this case has no better choice than to ride the currents toward Phoenix.
Photos: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images (action), Mikhail Serbin/Getty Images (dunking), Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images (Bender and Silver)