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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