3D wing, Croatian

Mario Hezonja Scouting Report

(First posted at RealGM)

POST-FIRST YEAR ASSESSMENT

  • 1,413 minutes
  • -0.1 pace-adjusted plus-minus
  • 9.4 PER

Hezonja had the least impressive first year of the players drafted in the top five.

Concerns regarding off ball defense and ball stopping that had him nailed to the end of the bench at Barcelona also limited his playing time in Orlando. But one could argue the Magic didn’t provide him a clear path to success either.

Orlando has consistently struggled with continuation in the Rob Henigan era. It doesn’t follow a clear path for more than a single season. First the plan was to develop Victor Oladipo similarly to how Oklahoma City developed Russell Westbrook but then they really wanted Elfrid Payton a year later, suddenly Evan Fournier seemed like a keeper but then the chance to get Tobias Harris emerged, Aaron Gordon was going to be their Blake Griffin but now they’ll try to turn him into Paul George.

Hezonja got lost in the shuffle. Scott Skiles arrived and brought with him expectations that this team was, as of that point, playing for wins. The 20-year-old wasn’t ready to contribute to a team seeking wins at the Euroleague level and he wasn’t ready to contribute to one at the NBA level.

Maybe if Hezonja was part of a well-built team with a clear structure in place, with some understanding that some mistakes were par for the course, he could actually have had more of an impact right away. Hezonja can drill spot-up looks. He proved he can create against a scrambling defense and make tough shots against NBA-caliber competition. And he possesses the combination of size and athletic ability that should translate into at least decent individual defense when he is engaged.

The problem is Orlando was not that well-built, Skiles did not tolerate Hezonja getting caught ball-watching or struggling to navigate over picks, not all that many good looks were created for him and the looks he created for himself were too tough too often to assume they could be a reliable source of offense. As a consequence, he averaged fewer than 18 minutes per game on 79 appearances.

Hezonja remains a more interesting player in theory than in reality but his defenders still have a case if they argue he hasn’t yet been put in the best position to succeed; the principal aspect of that being having the chance to stay out on the court long enough.

And, amazingly, it’s unclear if next season will be the season that happens.

Skiles split because he felt like doing so and Frank Vogel was hired. That could have been an opportunity for the organization to restructure itself and reset its expectations. But then it traded Victor Oladipo and the 11th pick in the draft to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka.

That could have been fine. Orlando could have been building a three-man rotation of Ibaka, Gordon and Nikola Vucevic upfront, with the two athletic forwards making up for Vucevic’s terrible defense. They would finish games with Ibaka and Gordon. Vucevic would be annoyed but then they could let him go when the situation turned too exhausting to manage. His contract should not be that hard to trade.

But then Orlando made everything too confusing to understand by signing Bismack Biyombo. Vogel subsequently told Zach Lowe their plan is to play Gordon as a wing now. And all of a sudden Jeff Green is involved as well. There should be no expectations for Green at this point but I assume Orlando has some sort of plan for him, given they are paying him $15 million next season.

All of this suggests Hezonja is just kind of there now. Oladipo and Harris are gone but Fournier was retained and now Gordon is a wing, so those are probably the two starters. Green is probably going to end up playing because coaches always have to wait and see for themselves that he can’t play before they eventually give up on him and he’ll probably play as a wing because the frontcourt already might not have enough minutes available for Biyombo, Ibaka and Vucevic as it is.

Hezonja should get some of leftover minutes on the wing, considering Vogel doesn’t like to stagger lineups a whole lot, but it should be mentioned that not even this is by design, as the Magic actually traded for Jodie Meeks to be in consideration for minutes here but it turns out that he is still injured and it appears they didn’t know the full extent of it.

It seems evident there is no clear path for Hezonja to break out in Orlando, at least not next season. He’ll have to force his way into a larger role, probably by hitting tough shots at a greater rate than he’s proven able to do so by now.

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

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7-footer, Croatian, Stretch Big, Tall Passer

Dragan Bender Scouting Report

(First posted at Upside & Motor.)

CONTEXT

The biggest issue for teenagers at the pro level is dealing with the physical nature of the game. That was part of the reason why Dragan Bender logged just 491 minutes for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season and why he struggled at the Las Vegas Summer League as well. The youngest player in the event, the 18-year-old showed once again he’s simply not yet ready to make a significant contribution at the senior level.

The other problem is that, exactly as it was the case at Maccabi, Bender was not given the proper opportunities to showcase how exactly he is able to help a team at this stage of his development. His top skill, the reason why he was drafted fourth overall, is his passing. For someone who stands at seven-foot-one, Bender showed in the junior ranks remarkable court vision and timing to help create shots for others.

But, while he did flash some ability to handle the ball in pick-and-roll from the perimeter with the Croatian National Team at the U18 European Championships in the summer of 2014, Bender doesn’t have the handle to bring the ball up the court and just dribble his way into a ball-screen against pressure as of now. Just like any other big man, he needs to be given the ball at the right spots, which the Suns failed to do throughout Summer League.

Perhaps concerned with his inability to match up well enough physically against opposing big men, Phoenix had Bender start Summer League logging most of his minutes as a true perimeter player, starting first and third quarters alongside both Marquesse Chriss and Alan Williams. Given Chriss’ ability to spot-up beyond the arc, that should have offered them the flexibility to have Bender and Chriss switch spots in the offense regularly but that never happened.

When Chriss was shut down after the third game, Bender was moved up a position and there was hope Bender would finally be able to get the ball a little more in the high post and be put in the pick-and-roll as a screener. But that still only happened very sporadically. Bender was, throughout Summer League, a pure weak-side option.

WEAK-SIDE OFFENSE

And as a pure weak-side option, Bender is just not good enough right now.

He is a capable open-shot shooter; elevating with good balance, fully extending himself and looking to possess clean mechanics up top. But, as was the case with Maccabi when he hit 33.8% of his 77 three-point shots last season, the ball just didn’t go in enough in Vegas, as he missed 25 of 34 three-point shots – according to RealGM.

It remains unclear if Bender can work out of the pick-and-pop as well, as he was not given many opportunities to do that. He has not shown to be the sort of dynamic threat who can come off screens but flashed some ability to move into a spot, set his feet quickly and let it fly.

Attacking closeouts, Bender lacks an explosive first step to blow by his man on catch-and-go’s and is prone to getting the ball stripped in traffic due to his dribble, reflected in his sky-high 25.2% turnover-rate in the context of his 20.1% usage rate. Lacking strength to maintain his balance through contact, he often can’t get all the way to the basket on dribble drives and when he could, Bender lacked burst to attack rim protection with any force. He’s flashed a nice touch on floaters to finish from the in-between area but is a lousy pull-up shooter at this stage of his development.

INTERIOR OFFENSE

Bender was put in the pick-and-roll maybe three times during his entire week in Vegas. When he was, he showed soft hands to catch the ball on the move but was unable to go up strong in traffic. Due to his role as a floor spacer, he did very little in the offensive glass but when he generated the eventual second chance, that inability to elevate out of two feet with some explosiveness also prevented him from transforming some of these rebounds into immediate putbacks.

Bender got the ball in the low post a few times but lacked strength to hold a deep seal and bully his way into short-range looks, even against smaller players on switches. He more often than not opted for a face-up jumper, which looked good but also didn’t go in enough, as he missed 12 of his 17 two-point shots. Playing without any sort of physicality, Bender earned just 12 fouls shots in five appearances.

DEFENSE

At the start of the week, he guarded mostly wings and proved able to bend his knees to get in a stance. But his week as a perimeter defender was so-so at best.

He’s too big to navigate ball screens but Bender showed some lateral agility and straight line quickness to keep pace with smaller point guards like Russ Smith, Briante Weber and Demetrius Jackson when he picked them up on switches and had plenty of help behind him.

But out on an island, closing out to wings like Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Miller, Abdel Nader and David Walker, he couldn’t stay in front. These bigger types, who have longer strides, didn’t have much trouble going around him and Bender didn’t contest shots from behind as effectively as you’d expect from someone with his length.

As a big during the second half of the week, Bender was also a mixed bag. He proved attentive to his help defense responsibilities and flashed some of his potential as a rim protector rotating off the weak-side, particularly in the game against Denver, elevating off the ground well enough for his nine-foot-three standing reach to make a difference.

But, as it happened in Israel as well, Bender was also a foul machine in such instances. Showing himself not polished enough to elevate vertically contesting shots at the basket, he averaged 5.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes.

Bender looked to box out but that’s another aspect of the game where his lack of strength hurts him thoroughly, as he can get pushed out of the way. But perhaps more concerning, Bender just didn’t play with the sort of energy needed to pursue the ball in traffic against the caliber of athleticism he faced his past week, collecting just 13.9% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, which is a very disappointing mark for someone his height.

Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor and at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara

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Croatian, Stretch Big, Tall Passer

Dario Saric Scouting Report

(First posted at RealGM)

CONTEXT

If you didn’t get to watch Dario Saric play for the Croatian National Team at the junior level or for Cibona Zagreb, you won’t understand what’s the interest behind the six-foot-10 combo forward all about.

In his two-season stint with Anadolu Efes, the 22-year-old Croatian was utilized almost entirely as a pure weak-side threat, save for the times he was shifted to center in emergency situations.

Head-coach Dusan Ivkovic had a point guard in Thomas Huertel with limited ability to work off the ball and who was also a massive liability on defense. So in order to maximize him, Ivkovic built an offense where Heurtel monopolized shot creation responsibilities and left little room for more promising but less developed options like Saric, Cedi Osman, Elijah Johnson, Derrick Brown and Furkan Korkmaz to stretch their wings.

As a consequence, it’s unclear how much Saric’s ball handling and passing developed over the last two seasons, whether the shot creation from the perimeter against a set defense he showed with Cibona at the Adriatic League level could be sustained against a higher level of competition.

PASSING

Saric was not given much opportunity to explore his best skill last season.

Previously, he had shown the ability to handle in pick-and-roll and pass out of the dribble penetration, showcasing the sort of anticipation skill that suggests Saric could also be an option as a screener as well, shorting his rolls and assisting spot-up shooters beyond the three-point arc or big men at the dunker spot.

But he was not utilized those ways at Efes. And he was also rarely relied on to help facilitate offense from the elbows.

Where Saric mostly flashed his passing in his stay in Turkey was out of the low post against switches. He has not shown to be a particularly killer scorer on those instances but most opponents felt more comfortable doubling him anyway. Saric often used his escape dribble with a lot of calm and darted cross-court passes to weak-side shooters on the opposite end of the floor, as his six-foot-10 height helps him see over the defense in traffic.

In his first season at Efes, Saric had proven himself able to attack closeouts with enough burst to draw help defense and was also more comfortable grabbing a defensive rebound and leading the break. But towards the end of his second season, he didn’t show as much explosiveness to blow by those closeouts as well, despite the fact he played in a well-spaced four-out offense with plenty of capable shooters around him, and he was either not as confident or drilled by his coach into no longer playing in transition.

As a consequence of those issues, Saric’s assist rate declined from 18% in 2014-2015 to just 10% in 2015-2016 – according to our stats database.

SCORING

Underutilizing his ability to help create for others is frustrating because Saric is at best a so-so scorer at this point of his development.

His most productive asset is his catch-and-shoot three-point shot but he’s only proven able to hit open shots with his feet set and no one rushing his release. Saric converted 40% of his 172 three-point shots last season but only at a pace of 4.8 attempts per 40 minutes, as he was not put in the pick-and-pop or asked to come off screens at all.

But the area Saric excels best is as a cutter, showcasing excellent feel for identifying gaps in the defense and making himself available around the rim.

As a shot creator out of straight isolations, he is a mixed bag. Saric has shown in the past a nice handle for someone his size to go side-to-side but can’t stop-and-start in a pinch and doesn’t have a lot quickness to shift directions and shake opponents with crossovers. His first step is not particularly explosive among pros but he has long strides on face-up drivers out of the mid-post and is able to maintain his balance through contact against players of a similar physical profile.

As a scorer, Saric has not shown much burst to attack length at the rim with explosiveness but has shown nice touch on non-dunk finishes and his 223-pound frame invites contact, leading to a very appealing 38% free throw rate a couple of years ago, though it declined to 29% last season.

He remains a lousy pull-up shooter, too rigid elevating off the bounce.

Saric did not screen in the pick-and-roll much but when he did, he put to use that ability to know the right spots to roll towards. Saric has soft hands to catch the ball on the move but has not flashed much potential to play above the rim as a target for lobs. He is a threat to pursue the ball on the offensive glass when he’s well positioned but lacks length to rebound outside of his area and also explosiveness converting these second chances into immediate putbacks.

DEFENSE

Much like his scoring, Saric’s defense is also average at best.

He plays with good effort in individual defense, able to bend low to the ground to get in a stance. Saric has proven capable of holding his own on straight line drives by pure wings like Elliot Williams and Mindaugas Kuzminskas – two players that could be considered NBA-caliber. Defending Williams in the game against Panathinaikos on a dribble drive out of a closeout attack, Saric even flashed the ability to elevate out of the two feet in a pinch to block his shot at the rim.

But he has not shown capable of switching into smaller, shiftier guards on an island, lacking the lateral quickness to stay in front in isolation when they shake him side-to-side or navigate over ball screens and recover in time to contest shots or shut down passing lanes as a trailer.

Defending as a big, Saric struggles to hold his ground in the post against bulkier power forward types and lacks length to contest outside shots effectively when he is closing out to stretch fours. As a help-defender, Saric is attentive to his rotation responsibilities but can’t play above the rim as a shot blocker – picking up just 51 blocks in 126 appearances over the last two seasons.

His most productive asset on that end is his rebounding, as he’s proven attentive to his boxout responsibilities and pursues the ball off the rim with nice energy – collecting almost 23% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor last season.

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

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7-footer, Croatian, Stretch Big, Tall Passer

Dragan Bender Scouting Report

(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

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7-footer, Croatian, Stretch Big, Tall Passer

Dragan Bender Scouting Report

(First posted at Upside & Motor.)

CONTEXT

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

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Croatian, Tall Passer

Dario Saric Scouting Report

(Originally posted at Upside & Motor)

Dario Saric is the highest touted European prospect since Ricky Rubio and many were disappointed when it was announced the 12th pick in last June’s draft would not be transferring to the NBA until 2016. 76ers’ fans wait patiently, though, as Saric continues to add to his legend. Named the Euroleague player of the month in November, the youngest to ever do it, he’s off to a good start to the season in his first year playing for Anadolu Efes in Turkey.

Efes’ head-coach Dusan Ivkovic has utilized him as a stretch-four, which is technically the same position he played at Croatian club Cibona Zagreb last season, except for the fact he got to do more ball-handling from the perimeter. Saric even used to have the chance to run some offense when point guard Jerel Blassingame was subbed out, maximizing his top skill which is his feel for the game. Saric is an excellent passer who is constantly looking to assist teammates in better scoring position, particularly in transition.

But while Saric can pass off dribble penetration, especially as a ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll, he has limitations as a shot creator from the top of the perimeter. Saric has a good handle dribbling from side-to-side for somebody who stands at six-foot-10 but struggles with his left hand. He does not create much separation off the bounce due to a first step that is not at all explosive at the highest level of European ball. He is also a lousy pull-up shooter, missing 18 of his 26 mid-range shots in 10 Euroleague appearances this season, according to GigaBasket.

Saric no longer does much ball-handling from the perimeter and his new team doesn’t get in transition as much as his old one, but he still has plenty of opportunities to flash his feel for the game by attacking closeouts, passing up decent perimeter looks to better shooters, placing himself at the foul line when the opponent play zone, facilitating from the high post, and hitting cutters and shooters out of post-ups. Saric leads both the Euroleague and the Turkish league in assist-rate among power forwards, and has assisted on 22.3 percent of Efes’ scores when he has been on the floor, according to RealGM.

As a scorer, Saric gets most of his points within close range. He struggles to finish around length on straight post-ups and has had 10 of his 89 attempts in the Euroleague blocked. He doesn’t have a jump-hook or a fadeaway jump-shot to rely on, almost exclusively looking to pass with his back to the basket. But he is great in transition and filling open voids around the rim. Saric is also able to take it to the rim attacking closeouts on straight line drives, although it’s important to keep it mind he is a better athlete than most position peers he plays against, especially in the Turkish league. He doesn’t finish with much power but has shown great touch, converting 70 percent of his 40 attempts at the rim in the Euroleague and averaging five foul shots per 36 minutes.

Saric has struggled badly from three-point range, though. He has always been merely capable but has regressed this season, missing 29 of his 38 attempts from beyond the arc. Saric gets good elevation off the ground and has a quick release but doesn’t keep his off arm consistently pointed up, fails to angle his body straight towards the rim, and has a habit of kicking with his right leg. His jump-shooting struggles have affected his efficiency and impact on the team. Saric has posted a lousy .472 effective field-goal percentage on 161 shots and Efes has scored just 99.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, while netting 106.8 overall, per RealGM.

On the other end, Saric has been a more positive presence. It’s noticeable how hard he plays. That’s particularly impressive because players who become stars as teenagers often lose focus on defense. Saric defends on the ball with a lot of effort, getting on his stance and using his lateral quickness to stay in front of opposing power forwards. However, stronger players have found success in overpowering him in the post, and Saric lacks the wingspan to effectively contest these shots without leaving his feet, thereby making himself vulnerable to fouling.

On a team-level, Efes switches a lot on pick-and-rolls and Saric has been attentive with his help responsibilities, rotating to pick up opponents diving to the basket. He is able to play above the rim as a shot blocker but not in volume, which limits his impact despite his effort. Saric maximizes his athleticism as an asset protecting the glass, though, ranking 10th in the Turkish league and 12th in the Euroleague in defensive rebounding rate. That has translated on Efes allowing 94 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, while permitting 96.2 overall.

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.

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3D wing, Croatian, Shot Creator, Tall Passer

Mario Hezonja Scouting Report

(Originally uploaded at Upside & Motor)

When I profiled Mario Hezonja in the summer, I mentioned that the biggest concern regarding his development was whether he was going to earn enough playing time to adequately evaluate his strengths and weaknesses heading into the draft. Because Hezonja is so young, everything that he does is considered potential, which is why both Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony had him projected as a top 10 pick at the start of the season regardless of the fact that he logged only 329 minutes in 2013-2014.

When Kostas Papanikolaou transferred to Houston this summer, there was hope Barcelona would turn to Hezonja to take over his vacated minutes but the team quickly signed Deshaun Thomas. Thomas went on to fill Papanikolaou’s exact role over the first month. Based on October, it seemed as if this season was going to be just as frustrating as last one for Hezonja. He averaged less than 10 minutes per game in six appearances that month.

Then Basketball Insiders’ David Pick reported Arn Tellem traveled to Barcelona to talk to the team about Hezonja’s future on November 14th. Six days later, Hezonja started over Thomas against Bayern Munich in the Euroleague.

It could have been a nice chance to see how Hezonja would fit alongside Barcelona’s ball dominant guards, Marcelinho Huertas and Juan Carlos Navarro. But Bayern’s coach, Svetislav Pesic, wasn’t in on the plan and called for Robin Benzing, a bigger wing, to post up Hezonja on three straight possessions early in the game. As a result, Barcelona’s head coach Xavi Pascual subbed Hezonja out and only brought him back in for garbage time.

Nevertheless, the ground had at least been established. Hezonja logged 15 minutes in the subsequent game against Fuenlabrada in the Spanish league, and turned in a forgettable three-point, three-turnover performance where he was a minus-6 in a game Barcelona won by 15.

And then last Thursday happened, a 22-minute outing against Olimpia Milano in the Euroleague that was an excellent opportunity to take a look at Hezonja. Not only did he get good minutes against good competition, he was also put into different situations and was asked to do quite a bit.

Hezonja subbed in two minutes into the second quarter and played all the way until halftime. Huertas was on the floor at first, so Hezonja was completely off the ball in those minutes. He appeared a bit uncertain where to stand but hit his two catch-and-shoot attempts, one from the corner with his foot on the line and one from the right wing on a kickout from Ante Tomic off an offensive rebound. His release remains methodical, slow enough that more athletic defenders can disrupt his shot when they close out on him. But as an open-shot shooter, his mechanics are good. He jumps straight up and down off the catch, no kick, and gets good elevation enough for a high release but not too much that it disrupts his rhythm.

Once Washington Wizards’ draftee Tomas Satoransky subbed in for Huertas later in the quarter, Hezonja assumed ball-handling duties. He ran three straight pick-and-rolls from the top. Not looking to pass in any of them, he drew a non-shooting foul attacking off the bounce, settled for a pull-up three-pointer and then had a great dunk attacking the rim against a good shot blocker (Shawn James) that showcased why his athleticism is projected to match well with NBA talent. Inside one minute left in the quarter, Hezonja brought the ball up the court and attacked the lane with great speed off an instant isolation, but ran into a crowd. He tried kicking it out to a spot-up shooter on the opposite wing without noticing there was a defender shutting down the passing lane. To no surprise, he turned the ball over.

On the other end, Hezonja was mostly off the ball and the man he was guarding didn’t force him to defend any sort of cuts. He did give up penetration on a straight isolation to an inferior athlete (Bruno Cerella), though, and erased himself out of a side pick-and-roll by crashing into a screen by Samardo Samuels.

Hezonja started the third quarter for Navarro, who left the game with an injury and didn’t return, and Pascual had him guarding Daniel Hackett, who is Milano’s top ball handler and shot creator off the dribble. Hezonja put in the effort but struggled navigating through on-ball screens, consistently going under the pick. Hackett is a very capable shooter — he went four-of-six from three-point range in the game and has hit 37 percent of his 27 three-point attempts in the Euroleague — so it’s assumed that was not the strategy. His athleticism made more of a difference guarding Hackett in isolation, as he moved laterally very well. He had a great possession where he completely shut down Hackett’s attempt of getting to the rim. Hezonja also had an incredible block at the rim defending a cut. Those that project Hezonja to be a plus-defender in the NBA have this sort of impact in mind.

That alone would have been more than what he has had a chance to do all season but after subbing out for some rest late in the third quarter, Hezonja returned in the fourth and closed the game. He was not asked to guard Hackett this time, instead he was assigned to Cerella again. On offense, Hezonja contributed with five key points, hitting an open three-pointer on a cross court pass from one wing to the opposite corner, and earning free throws going left on a straight pick-and-roll up top. His left hand doesn’t seem to be as developed as his right one and he didn’t attack with as much speed as did when he went right the couple of times he forced the issue in the first half.

This was arguably the most encouraging performance of Hezonja’s pro career to date, even if he finished with merely 13 points on four-of-six shooting in those 22 minutes. He had one 26-point scoring outburst against La Bruixa D’or last season but that’s a low level team in the Spanish league. This was the game where he got the most minutes against a high-caliber opponent and was asked to do the most.

If you’ve never seen Hezonja play, this is the perfect game for a first look because it provided a good chance to evaluate his potential.

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.

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