NBA

Potential No. 1 pick? You should be excited about Dragan Bender

Meet Dragan Bender, a 17-year-old Croatian prospect who is expected to declare for the 2016 NBA Draft. Much like what we saw with Mario Hezonja, don’t be surprised if his stock soars between now and June next year.

Layne Vashro writes for our sister site Nylon Calculus and is the brains behind one of the best publically available NBA Draft models. Here is the list of players since 1990 who have posted an Expected Wins Peak (EWP) score — a measure of how well a player will perform at the peak of their NBA career — above 17.0, with at least a 200-minute sample, prior to being drafted.

  • Shaquille O’Neal 1991 – EWP = 31.1 (881 minutes played)
  • Anthony Davis 2012 – EWP = 23.5 (1280 minutes played)
  • Nerlens Noel 2013- EWP = 19.3 (766 minutes played)
  • Shaquille O’Neal 1990 – EWP = 18.8 (901 minutes played)
  • Tim Duncan 1997 – EWP = 18.6 (1137 minutes played)
  • Dragan Bender 2014 – EWP = 17.4 (261 minutes played)

Obviously, there is a lot to consider with these numbers. First off, Bender’s performance is both the lowest EWP of this group on by far the lowest minute sample. Additionally, while I view Nerlens Noel as a likely future All-Star, not everyone views him that way and he definitely doesn’t match the players on that list before him. Nevertheless, that’s some promising company for Bender to be in.

Bender compiled that EWP score at the FIBA Europe U18 Tournament last summer where he averaged 14.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.7 turnovers, 2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals in 29 minutes per game, despite playing as a 16-year-old against mostly 18-year-old competition. During the 2014-15 regular season, Bender played for Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s junior team, and while he played well, he didn’t play exceptionally well.

In the spring, he played at the Adidas Eurocamp where he didn’t produce eye-popping numbers, but nonetheless impressed scouts and had some intriguing highlights. Most importantly, Bender measured at a formidable 6-11.5 without shoes with a 7-2 wingspan at the camp. Professional scouts have had limited opportunity to view Bender since the U18 tourney, and amateur draftniks such as myself have had basically zero chance.

This summer looked like a great opportunity for NBA and amateur scouts alike to come to a more complete opinion on Bender. He was set to compete in both the U18 European tournament and the U19 international tournament, where he would play against some of the best US prospects. Unfortunately, due to a sneaker dispute between the Croatian youth teams and himself, he was unable to play.

In 2015-16, Bender will play with Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s senior team, which includes a brief US tour, but it is possible he will be loaned out to a team where he can play more once the season is underway. Hopefully wherever he goes is a place where he can both put up numbers that can be evaluated by models and be watched by the public.

However, it is possible that the vast majority of fans, myself included, will never be able to watch a full game of Bender’s where he plays significant minutes until next year’s draft. So, it’s important to go back and watch what we can from the U18 tournament last summer to see if his incredible EWP score is reflective of his talent as a prospect. It is worth noting that sites like DraftExpress, and other scouts that have seen him play live, are impressed and think he is a top 10 or top-5 prospect for next year’s draft. However, they don’t see him as a clear can’t miss No. 1 overall pick talent, much like an Anthony Davis or Andrew Wiggins.

There are only three games of Bender available on YouTube, but I tried to glean as much as I could from them.

Scoring

Bender is an exciting prospect because of how well-rounded he is for a big man, not because he looks like a dominant scoring force. His 19.9 points per 40 minutes at the U18 tournament isn’t awful, but he’s never been a particularly impactful scorer at the youth levels. While he isn’t a dynamic scorer, Bender is at least a diverse scorer.

Here is a quick video compilation of the different ways in which Bender tries to score the ball.

One element of Bender’s scoring to note is how it fits in with the traditional European big man style by spacing the floor out to the 3-point line. His form is a slightly stiff but lacks any glaring flaws, and he has a quick release for a big man. With his size and release speed, his shooting could be dangerous, but he hasn’t shown consistency as an outside shooter yet. At the U18s, he shot 32.4 percent from deep and 66.7 percent from the line; this past year for Maccabi’s junior team, he shot only 26.9 percent from outside and 64.2 percent from the stripe.

Those numbers are truly concerning; Bender has solid form and takes outside shots with confidence, but it is unlikely he develops into a dangerous threat from behind the arc. As to be expected of someone with his shooting numbers, Bender is limited to popping out of pick and roll or spotting up for his 3s because, unlike Kristaps Porzingis, he has not shown the ability to come off screens and hit.

If Bender can develop his outside shot he is going to be difficult to contain because he already has an advanced ability to attack closeouts. His handle for a big guy is solid. Like many players his size it is too high to make off the dribble moves, but he handles well enough to not be slowed by the ball when attacking closeouts or in transition. Bender uses his speed to attack the lane quickly and moves fluidly like a wing to navigate and step through help defenders. At the basket, he shies away from contact and tries to finish too much like a guard. While it is impressive that he has the coordination for those attempts, he would be better off going into opponents’ bodies and using his length to finish.

Bender’s weak frame deters him from going into contact and ultimately hurts his efficiency inside the arc. He shot 53 percent from two in the U18s and 49 percent for Maccabi, relatively poor numbers for a medium usage 7-footer. The shaky finishing is wholly due to his lack of strength and propensity to avoid contact, as his touch around the basket is actually one of his best attributes.

The speed and confidence Bender has with the ball attacking downhill also allows him to run the break some. He even ran pick and rolls as the primary ball handler at times. The “elbow get” 4-5 pick and roll became popular in this year’s NBA Playoffs, and Bender’s ability to attack with his agility while still surveying the court suits him to that role perfectly.

If Bender were to ever become a 20 point per game type scorer, it would probably be as a result of him developing a face-up game in the 15-18 foot range. His combination of shooting and ability to attack the basket with a quick first step makes him dangerous in that area, but he basically never attempted to score from that type of isolation play in the three games I watched.

That coordination attacking the basket also should allow him to contribute as a roll man when he catches it on the short roll. Bender almost exclusively played pick and pop when he set screens, robbing me of seeing him actually attack in short roll situations. As a screen setter, his skinny frame didn’t do him any favors, but he was clever about flipping screens and using his hips to at least make some contact with the defender.

Bender flashed intriguing signs of a post game at the U18s, too. Most of the time when he went to post-up he was pushed off the block and not given the ball, but the few times he established decent position he did a surprisingly good job of finishing plays. He wasn’t able to back his defender down, but he executed quick and basic post moves, hitting running hooks towards the middle or bank jump hooks from the sides.

Finally, Bender scores some as a dump off man, as all bigs do. He’s fine in these situations, but not anything special. His hands are about average for a big as he missed a couple difficult passes, yet didn’t blow anything easy either. Once he gets the ball, Bender’s tendency to shy away from contact is still an issue, but he is a quick leaper going up for dunks and his soft touch gives him a wider variety of shots he can go to.

In all, Bender is a skilled scorer who can contribute in a lot of ways. He just hasn’t found one way where he can consistently go to be a threat and get buckets. Either improving his outside shot or developing his face up or pick and roll scoring would benefit him greatly, and both are feasible improvements. In addition to skill improvements, Bender needs to change his mindset as he too often looks to blend in on offense instead of attacking with the aggression his skill level should allow him to. Still, it is no given that Bender is ever more than an average NBA scorer for a 4 or 5.

Passing

For most big men, it isn’t necessary to devote a whole section to their passing, but Bender isn’t just any big guy. In just the three games I watched, there were plenty of awesome passes that he threw. These are some of the best.

Bender’s passing is his one true exceptional skill, and he truly is exceptional in that regard. Per 40 minutes at the U18s, he averaged 6.8 assists and only 2.3 turnovers. For a legit 7-footer playing a year in international play, where assists are notoriously harder to come by, those are just ridiculous numbers. He was an even third amongst all players in assists per game.

Bender racks up the assists in all sorts of ways. He is Kevin Love-like in his ability to outlet the ball, though having to rely on baseball passes rather than overhead two-handed passes makes his rebound to release time a little slower. If he doesn’t see an immediate outlet after a rebound he is fantastic at pushing in semi-transition, and does a great job seeing over the defense or just hitting ahead to shooters.

In half court situations he is unselfish, and a big part of why he doesn’t score often is because when he catches the ball on the perimeter his first look is to find someone inside or swing to the open man. If he does attack from outside, he’s a great passer on the move with the ability to dump off to the other big or kick to shooters. That ability to pass on the move is rare for a big guy, and it is why his coaches let him run pick and roll. Bigs aren’t accustomed to defending someone like him and he can loft passes to the roll man or hit them with crisp pocket passes.

Bender is also a great inside-outside passer when he catches in the post or on dump offs, and he does a great job finding shooters with bullets. His inside-outside passing applies off of offensive rebounds, too, and his head is always up looking for teammates. Bender has fantastic accuracy and precision on his passes; he’ll loft passes over a defender’s outstretched arms and rocket them through small gaps in the defense.

In general, Bender is a high IQ player, and his ability to see the court and pass the ball is a testament to that. If you watch him closely, you’ll notice the way he subtly re-adjusts his screens, directs his teammates on the court and has a Tyson Chandler-esque knack for tipping loose balls and rebounds to teammates.

It is fair to wonder just how impactful a big man can be passing the ball, especially if they aren’t a high usage scorer. Bender’s passing certainly doesn’t alter the game the way a guard like Steve Nash or Jason Kidd could, but Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah can change the way their team’s offense operates. Bender has that level of passing acumen.

Rebounding

Bender’s outstanding basketball instincts and ability to read the game come through in his ability to rebound the ball. At the U18 tourney, he averaged 14.3 rebounds per 40 minutes, and for Maccabi’s junior team he averaged 10.6 per 40 minutes despite playing against grown men who are much stronger than him.

On the defensive glass, that lack of strength can hurt Bender at times, but his solid length and ability to pursue the ball make him effective. He’s at his best on the offensive end where he can use his knack for reading how shots will ricochet off the rim and quick second jump to corral boards and get tip-ins.

Bender is thought of as mostly a stretch 4, but if he adds significant weight to his frame he has the rebounding ability to play the five. His body is a long way away from being able to compete with NBA centers, but having the requisite length and rebounding prowess gives him a better chance than most stretch 4 prospects.

Defense

Here’s a quick compilation of some interesting Bender defense, though not all plays are necessarily highlights.

Part of what makes Bender such a high-level prospect is that in addition to his high offensive skill level, he is a versatile and impactful player on the defensive end. Like on offense, he’s not great at one thing in particular but he’s an above average interior and perimeter defender for his size.

Bender will need to add weight to translate his shot blocking to higher levels, but at the youth levels he is an effective shot-blocking force, as illustrated by his 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes at the FIBA U18s. He doesn’t sky above the rim to swat shots out of the air like a DeAndre Jordan. Instead, Bender uses his quick leaping, solid length and good timing to stop shots as they leave the hands of his opponent. He usually goes for the block rather than verticality, but part of the reason he is able to block so many shots is that his hands are always straight up when he’s around the rim. Like many young guys, though, he needs to do a better job of staying on his feet for pump fakes.

Bender is less impressive when it comes to rotating on defense to be in position to block shots. Many young players struggle with attentiveness and effort levels on help defense, and Bender is no exception. Considering he was 16 during the tournament and had never played for a high-level club, it’s not a huge negative and he wasn’t a disaster rotating by any means. Still, he definitely has room to improve in terms of consistently being engaged and helping on the defensive end. Thankfully, his court vision and instincts should make him adept at rotating well once he commits mentally to always doing so.

Bender’s biggest weakness on the defensive end is his ability to guard in the post. Judging from his Eurocamp measurements, he was 202 pounds in spring of 2014 and 216 pounds in spring of 2015. He was probably around 206 pounds in the games I watched him. At 205 pounds, there was little hope of Bender doing a good job guarding in the post, especially since most of his competition was one or two years older than him. Still, he contested shots well and, assuming he continues to add weight and muscle to around the 225-230 range, he should be able to compete down low in time.

The part of his defensive game that has the most chance to stand out is his mobility in guarding pick and rolls. The Croatian coaches frequently let Bender switch screens, and he reportedly had a couple of impressive switch and contain sequences at the Eurocamp this spring. His lateral mobility is fantastic for a 7-footer. In conjunction with his length, he can absolutely stay with most guards stride for stride. Where guards have an advantage is when they change speeds and directions. His lateral mobility in one direction is great, but when forced to stop and start or switch directions quickly his footwork isn’t consistent and he often loses a step on his man. Over time, he should get better at that and improve his footwork, but just how good he can get will have a big impact on his future.

Bender has the lateral quicks to be a devastating switch all screens level of defender, but refinement in his defensive fundamentals is necessary for him to get there. Either way, he should be a good defender in pick and roll situations with the ability to hedge and recover well or switch if his teammate needs it. Bender’s combination of small forward type mobility as a 7-footer with shot blocking instincts makes him an enticing defensive prospect.

Conclusion, for now

There are a lot of issues with Bender’s game and plenty of areas where he needs to improve. Specifically, improving his outside shot, becoming more confident as a creator, adding strength to his frame and competing harder and smarter on the defensive end.

That being said, the array of things Bender was able to do as a 16-year-old is rare. Most true superstars are either game-changing interior defenders or high usage creators for themselves and their teammates. Bender isn’t either of those things and probably doesn’t deserve to be compared to the likes of O’Neal and Duncan in Layne’s model. Yet, Bender is a superstar made for the modern game due to his incredible versatility with which he helps his team. He has flashed the tools of someone who could be an effective scorer and creator, and it is not out of the question that he could develop into one if he continues to improve and adopt a more aggressive mindset.

It’s worth remembering that Bender did all of this at only 16. While a lot could go wrong over the next few years as he taps into his potential, his ceiling is truly limitless. Hopefully, I and the draft community will get plenty of opportunity to evaluate Bender through a scouting lens this upcoming season, but I’m worried that we won’t see much of him.

My opinions on the other prospects in the 2016 NBA Draft are only in their earliest stages, but for now I’m not particularly impressed by any. Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram all look like top-10 talents to me, but none of them jump out as a definite No. 1 pick. Bender doesn’t scream future superstar, but the numbers suggest he’s a clear No. 1 pick, and my scouting currently likes him more than my limited viewing of any of the other top players. For that reason, I’m starting the 2016 season off with Bender at No. 1 on my board, and it will take him underachieving or someone else exceeding expectations for him to get knocked off that perch.

Bender’s a 7 footer who can shoot 3s, attack like a wing, pass like a guard, protect the rim and switch onto anyone on the perimeter. Obviously, there is a lot more nuance to scouting than that— Hi, Anthony Randolph — but that’s an exciting package. And I, for one, am super excited about what is to come for Dragan Bender and his amazingly cool name.