(First posted at RealGM)
Much like Chriss, Bender also possesses a combination of size and skill that might be perfectly suited for the ‘perimeter-oriented, switch-heavy but with size’ style of basketball that is the logical conclusion of the smallball revolution. He’s not as prolific an athlete as Chriss but seems to be more ahead in the development of his skill-set.
Bender has shown to be a decent open shot shooter, as that was his only role for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season. They didn’t even use him much screening for the ball, so it’s not particularly clear if he’s the sort of shooter who can be in the pick-and-pop. His release is a bit methodical and he doesn’t elevate much off the ground but has great length and his mechanics look clean up top, converting 33.8% of his 77 three-point shots last season – according to our stats database.
As a weak-side threat, Bender had opportunities to attack closeouts and flashed his excellent passing on the move, which is the other really appealing aspect in his set of skills. His height helps him see over the top of the defense in traffic and he’s shown remarkable court vision for someone his size spotting shooters rotating to open spaces around the perimeter.
Bender was given a few chances of running pick-and-roll from the perimeter with the Croatian National Team at the U18 European Championships in the summer of 2014, which was a remarkable sight to see, as he was already six-foot-11 at the time. He lacks the sort of quickness and dynamism going side-to-side to attack off the bounce to be a legit scoring threat unless the opponent just opens a straight-live drive to the basket for him but the goal was creating enough action for the defense to scramble, allowing Bender to pick them apart through his high vantage point with his passing skills.
That’s why Bender has the highest upside in this draft: the simple idea that a seven-foot-one person can be a multi-dimensional center on defense, who can protect the rim or pick up smaller players on switches, and then potentially draw the opposing center 25 feet away from the rim to guard in a way he’s not used to and run pick-and-roll with opposing perimeter defenders all stressed out because the rim protector is away from the basket and the guard or wing he is defending might cut to the basket or a have a catch-and-shoot created for him at any second.
But Bender is proven not to be that sort of player in a couple of these things yet, while he was not given much opportunity to show whether he is developing in others.
He was relied on to pick up wings on switches and did well against some NBA-caliber players like Alessandro Gentile and Mindaugas Kuzminskas in isolation. Bender’s proven able to bend his knees, get in a stance to get in a reasonably low stance, move laterally and keep pace. 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. But it’s unclear how well he can do against better athletes.
It’s also unclear if his handle made progress or he’s developed any dribble moves since he was given a chance to run offense from the perimeter, as Maccabi had several ball-dominant point guards (Jordan, Farmar, Yogev Ohayon, Taylor Rochestie, Gal Mekel) who are obviously much better at running pick-and-roll than some teenage experiment and gave the team a better chance to win each game, which was the top goal for a big team.
And that priority of seeking wins, and lots of them, is why Bender ended up logging just 491 minutes last season. He was a little restricted in the Israeli league, due to rules that forced teams to have one of the young players active in games be domestic, but could not earn consistent minutes and a meaningful spot in the rotation due to his lack of strength and physicality at this point of his development.
Bender has a weak 216-pound frame in the context of his seven-foot-one height and struggles with every single aspect that involves toughness. He can make the proper rotations defending close to the rim but opponents are able to finish through his contact when he’s standing in front of the rim. He can’t hold his ground in the post and, more alarmingly, boxing out to help protect the defensive glass – collecting jut 16.1% of opponents’ misses last season, according to our stats database, which is a very underwhelming rate for a seven footer.
Those issues made him unplayable against a higher level of competition, as he logged just 10.5 minutes per game in seven Euroleague appearances and four minutes per game in three Eurocup appearances.
They also hurt him on offense, where Bender struggled to contain his balance through contact and rarely got all the way to the basket when he attacked a closeout. And he was hopeless trying to establish deep position in the block.
But despite the fact he hasn’t yet developed into something close to an NBA-caliber player yet, Bender will be drafted in the top 10 on Thursday because of his age, which puts things into a much more appealing context. As Nate Duncan smartly alluded to in a recent version of the Duncan’d On podcast, Bender has only rarely played against his own age group. Even in that 2014 U18 European Championships, Bender was only 16 and still a few months away from his 17th birthday. Therefore, all the glimpses of star role player potential he’s flashed have an added value to them.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara