(First posted at Upside & Motor.)
The title of this post is a bit misleading. There isn’t really much to write decisively about Dragan Bender midway through his first season as a full time pro.
There wasn’t much expectation the 18-year-old was going to be a big part of what Maccabi Tel Aviv did this season. Coaches of big European powerhouses are paid to win games — lots of them — and teenagers rarely help them achieve such goals, as this has been proven true in Bender’s case as well.
The Croatian phenom has logged just 252 minutes in his 22 appearances this season, logging less than 10 minutes in half of those games. He’s been deployed as a minutes-eater, playing mostly in garbage time or subbing in earlier in games when another more important player in the rotation needs to sub out due to foul trouble or some other issue.
Draft Express currently ranks him third in their mock draft but unless something dramatic changes, I find it hard to believe Bender will declare for and eventually keep his name in this year’s draft. He is on year two of a seven-year contract signed with Maccabi in the summer of 2014 and only in his first season as a part of the powerhouse’s senior squad, after he split time between Maccabi’s junior squad and a team that plays in the Israeli second division on loan last season.
Bender is very early into the life of his deal and hasn’t yet developed into a player who is able to produce at the pro level, so one assumes that a potential buyout to try acquiring Bender before any of the final three years of his deal for which he has opt-outs must cost a prohibitive amount.
If Bender were to declare for the draft, he’d be doing so because a team out there has seen enough of him by now to feel comfortable promising to select him in the top five and then wait another two or three years before he transfers. Such a team probably does not exist at this point. The 76ers are the only one out there speculated to have enough guts to do something like this but things changed in Philadelphia over the last month, with Sam Hinkie losing power after the arrival of Jerry Colangelo.
Bender has shown an incredibly unique combination of height and skill-set in the junior tournaments he has participated in over the last three years. But not all teenage phenoms are guaranteed to become superstars in the pros, and Bender has not yet been given the proper opportunity to show whether or not he remains on pace to develop into that sort of player.
STRENGTH & PHISICALITY
The reason why Bender has been judged borderline unplayable by his coaches against high-level competition (posting averages of 10 minutes per game in seven Euroleague appearances and just four minutes per game in a couple of outings in the Eurocup) is his lack of physicality at this point of his development.
He possesses a thin 216-pound frame in the context of his seven-foot-one height and does not yet have the sort of strength needed to bang against players who are often seven, 10, 12 or 15 years older than he is.
As a result, Bender hasn’t been able to set deep position and back opponents down in the post. But the biggest issue is on the other end, where he has struggled holding his ground in the low block and boxing out to help protect the defensive glass, collecting just 13% of opponents’ misses this season, according to RealGM – which is a disappointing mark for someone his height.
Despite his height and nine-foot-three standing reach, opponents have been able to go at Bender and finish through his contact when he is standing in the front of the rim. He simply lacks the physical nature to be a presence opponents fear having to deal with at the basket.
That inability to withstand contact has also affected him in the perimeter on offense, where Bender has struggled to maintain his balance through contact and often has his dribble drives contained in the in-between area.
Part of what makes Bender such an intriguing prospect is the possibility that he could be able to play center in the future as the anchor of a five-out offense but that is only a dream at this point, as Bender appears a long way away from gaining the sort of mass and force needed to make that viable.
BALL SKILLS & COORDINATION
So Bender remains a prospect of interest despite the fact he hasn’t yet developed his physical profile enough to earn regular playing time at the pro level because of the ball skills and coordination moving in space he has shown in the past.
Bender stands at seven-foot-one but is very agile for someone his height. He can sprint up the court to finish with power in transition and has flashed second jump-ability to fight for tip-ins on the offensive glass, when a tougher big man doesn’t erase him out of the play completely with a physical box out.
But Bender’s mobility is perhaps even more promising with regards to his potential defending in space. Obviously, he is not suited to pick up speedy point guards on switches and have to navigate ball-screens but Bender has proven able to bend his knees to get in a stance, move laterally and keep pace with less athletic wings like Alessandro Gentile and Mindaugas Kuzminskas in isolation. His seven-foot-two wingspan makes it extremely tough for an opponent to shoot over him off the bounce without creating a good deal of separation first.
As a help-defender, Bender can cut off dribble penetration containing the pick-and-roll as a big and has long strides to crash inside to bump a big rolling to the basket and then closeout to a weak-side spot-up shooter. More critically, he has often been able to run the shooter off the three-point line and maintain his balance to defend the dribble drive.
He is also a more able shot blocker when he sprints off the weak-side in a hurry and attacks a dribble driver rather than when the dribble driver attacks him, as mentioned above. Most of his 16 blocks this season occurred on such instances.
But while his impact as a team defender is how Bender has been more capable of contributing early in his pro career, what really pops and excites most people is ability to handle and pass on the move while standing at seven-foot-one.
Bender has proven able to handle on the break, grabbing the rebound and pushing the ball up the floor. In the half-court, he can attack closeouts on catch-and-go’s and has excellent court vision to take advantage of a collapsing defense by finding open teammates. He can also be a real asset creating for others with his back to the basket in the low post whenever he manages to get the ball there.
Bender even flashed the ability to run pick-and-roll a little bit playing for the Croatian National Team U18 a couple of summers ago. He lacks the sort of quickness off the bounce to be a legit scoring threat attacking around a ball-screen but the goal was creating enough action for the defense to scramble, allowing Bender to pick them apart thanks his high vantage point.
That’s really what makes Bender so appealing; the chance that he might in future be the sort of ‘power-forward’ who can not only make plays for others attacking closeouts and passing out of the shot roll but also draw a big defender all the way to the perimeter, run pick-and-roll and force that defender to guard in a way he is not accustomed to.
But that’s not the case yet, though. Bender is not at all put in a position to handle the ball in the perimeter with Maccabi because it has better options to do that. His team has two point guards, Yogev Ohayon and Taylor Rochestie, who need to monopolize possession to be effective running offense and have high assist rates in their careers. It also has Devin Smith, a wing who is relied on to create off the dribble often, aside from having Jordan Farmer also around earlier in the season.
Bender is also not yet a player able to draw help consistently. He is not any sort of a scoring threat off the bounce at this point of his development. He is unable to blow by most defenders when they run him off the three-point, often fails to get all the way to the rim, can’t go side-to-side or change speeds and lacks a pull-up jump-shot or a floater to finish from the in-between area. His thin frame also doesn’t invite the sort of contact that leads to foul calls, as he’s taken just 17 free throws in his 22 appearances this season.
Bender’s most significant contribution on offense has been as a spot-up three-point shooter. He is only an open-shot shooter right now, unable to set his feet quickly and pull the trigger fast enough to be an asset out of the pick-and-pop or running off screens, but he has been able to adequately space the floor for runs at the rim by centers Trevor Mbakwe and Brian Randle. Bender has a methodical release and doesn’t elevate much off the ground but has a high release point thanks to his length and his mechanics look clean up top, converting 16 of his 38 attempts from beyond the arc this season.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara