The Next Big Thing?
For most high draft prospects, there is a clear-cut plan: Attend a high-profile college, have a breakout season, showcase all of the great things about your game, generate a lot of buzz and get drafted in the first 10 picks.
For international players, it’s a little harder. For 7’1 big man Dragan Bender, his season for Maccabi Tel Aviv was supposed to be his breakout showcase. After all, Maccabi historically has been one of the best teams in international basketball and routinely plays some of the best talent in the Euroleague. What better place to show the basketball world you are ready for the next level?
The problem is Maccabi wasn’t very good last season; in fact they were a downright disappointment, which in many ways derailed what should have been a promising year for Bender.
“It was a tough season really – a really tough season,” Bender told Basketball Insiders from his hotel room in Boston. “The beginning was great, but then we started to lose some games in the Euroleague and back in the Israeli league, we changed some players. We changed the coach. It was a totally different system. It was a tough season, especially for a young prospect with that kind of club, in that kind of position with all that pressure – it was really hard. Even though I didn’t play a lot, I had a lot of time to work. I used this season to work on myself.”
Not playing a lot has created something of a void for talent evaluators. Bender logged just 10.6 minutes per game in the Euroleague, as Maccabi tried to salvage their season at the expense of Bender’s playing time.
The experience wasn’t all bad for Bender, who used his time to work on his body and his game. He also learned some tough lessons about life and winning and losing, especially as part of such a storied team like Maccabi, where the pressures and expectations are so high.
“I have been through some things this season that some of these guys [in the draft] are going to be in, in the next two or three years,” Bender said. “It did help me a lot.”
It also prepared Bender for the pressure that comes from being a high-level draft pick at the next level.
“For sure, mental wise, definitely,” Bender said. “You understand some things. Of course it helps you a lot for sure in the long-term.
“I was around every day with players a lot of years, like 10 years, older than me. You have to work really hard to be on the same level as those guys, to be able to play with them, to practice and then to compete with all those guys in the Euroleague or even back in the Israeli league.“
Unlike most in the 2016 NBA Draft, Bender has spent the last few years trying to earn playing time away from grown professional men, much like he’ll have to do in the NBA – something he feels like he’s ready for as he takes part in the draft process for NBA teams.
Bender arrived in the United States last Sunday and has been in to see a small handful of teams drafting at the top of the NBA draft. He has a few more visits scheduled before making his way to New York on Wednesday for the actual draft (which is in Brooklyn on Thursday).
“It is exciting. All of the practices, from the beginning right up to the draft, everything is new for me culture-wise. I am just trying to enjoy it and trying to do my best,” Bender said.
“For me, the draft and wherever I get picked, it’s just a dream come true. For me, all of this is exciting. It’s truly a blessing that I am here right now. There are great things ahead of me. I am not really trying to focus on those things. [I’m] just trying to focus on these workouts, the practices in-between, just trying to keep myself positive. Whatever is going to happen, we’ll see.”
Bender is the youngest player in the 2016 NBA Draft class, making him the player with potentially the biggest upside, especially for a team willing to spend a little bit of time developing him. He is already a solid offensive player with range out to the three-point line. He is an engaged shot blocker and a pretty good rebounder, with a 7’2 wingspan and a 9’3 standing range. Length and athleticism are desired traits in the NBA draft.
While Bender is truly a high-ceiling NBA draft prospect, he believes he can contribute right away, especially on defense.
“Versatility for sure; I can defend multiple positions on defense,” Bender said. “I can see the screens and stay in front of the guards. On offense, I am a big guy that can spread the floor. You know, spread the defense, make some passes and help the team in different ways both offensively and defensively for sure.
“I like to play basketball. I like to share the ball and just enjoy basketball on the court and in the game. Doing the right play just makes you happy. I like to play the game and be competitive. It does not matter if I score 30 points or 10 points – at the end of the day, for me, it just matters if we won the game.”
Bender has a calm understanding of everything that is in front of him, which is refreshing compared to some of his contemporaries who are thumping their chests and trying to make a case for a higher draft slot.
Bender has a realistic tone about all of the draft hype and that’s unusual at this time of year, where everything comes across as a prepared sales pitch.
“I grew up in the surroundings around me; [my] family and the people around me, the things I have been through in my life,” Bender said of his demeanor. “As a basketball player, you always dream about something. But on the other side, you have to be realistic with yourself with your opportunities and your talent. I am always trying to be realistic and look at things from the other side and trying to stay on the ground and do those daily basic things and go day by day and know for sure good things are going to happen.”
Bender also isn’t caught up in where he gets drafted. It helps that most of the teams in the top five have expressed more than a passing interest in him and he’s been in for workouts with almost all of them.
“For sure the guys that might pick me know why they are considering me for their pick. They know everything about me,” Bender said, understanding the thoroughness that NBA teams put into a draft selection.
“I have been through all of that, that’s just part of the job. The staff from the big organizations, they have to protect their choice, they have to pick the best. They are doing all of the statistics, the profiling of players and all that stuff. I am not really surprised because I have been through all this in Europe; I am kind of used to this stuff.”
It does not hurt Bender’s cause that the NBA has seen an influx of impactful international players like New York’s Kristaps Porzingis, Orlando’s Mario Hezonja and Denver’s Jusuf Nurkić and Nikola Jokić.
“There are a lot of guys coming from Europe coming overseas and trying to be good players [and] lately there has been some that have shown some impact on the game in the NBA, “ Bender said. “The NBA is changing in that way where a lot of Europeans and guys are coming over and really playing in the NBA. For me, it’s great and we’ll see what it’s like in the future.”
The future for Bender starts on Thursday and he seems at peace with whatever happens.
“It was my choice to go through all of this,” Bender said. ”Like I said, there is excitement; it’s my dream coming true. I love this time right now before the draft, all these workouts. I am just glad that I can be here.
“For me the number does not really matter. I just want to come and prove that I can play basketball at the highest possible level right now and that’s the NBA. When I was a kid, I was always dreaming about being in the NBA Draft or playing with a NBA team, so being able to fulfill dreams is just amazing. It’s something I have always wanted and it [is] just in front of me. “
If the NBA draft holds true to the expected form, Bender’s dream may not take long to actualize as he could be one of the first five names called.
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NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
* * * * * *
With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”