Stop me if you've heard this before New Orleans: a prospect has the size of a big man but the dexterity and coordination of a guard. Anthony Davis' story has been repeated ad naseum since his selection in the 2012 Draft, and coming to some fortunate arena next October, Dragan Bender could follow in similar footsteps. The 7'1'', 225 pound prospect has the length of a basketball center but displays a game more synonymous with that of triple-threat wingman.
In most drafts, one name expected to be selected inside the lottery always seems more polarizing than the rest of the crowd. Last year, that honor went to Kristaps Porzingis. The year before it was Dante Exum. In 2013, Alex Len carried the burden.
Notice a trend?
International prospects are more likely to find themselves immersed in the loudest of controversies. The reasoning is simple: they are often difficult to grade, for fans and experts alike. Whether it's due to role, strength of competition or a lack of scouting video, glamorized basketball talent from abroad is usually depicted as some sort of enigma. Worse, these mystery men are subject to greater individual biases because a lack of familiarity lends to quick-snap judgements.
This year, Dragan Bender is the poster child of the club. By now there probably isn't a fan left who doesn't have an opinion of the Croatian, yet I'd wager very few have viewed a sufficient amount of his minutes. Believers argue he has just as much of a chance to become a star in the league as Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram or anyone else. Naysayers see a big who isn't great at any one thing, and at his lightweight size and tender age, the growing pains will be arduous.
Bender has most oft been compared to Porzingis, last season's sensation out of Europe, but it's far from a good comparison. Sure, they're both over 7-feet tall, who can stretch the floor out to the three-point line, but that's where the similarities end. As to where Kristaps' paint presence, in terms of shot-blocking and rebounding, is noticeably stronger, Bender's edge resides in exhibiting a comfort level from any part of the floor. He is a better ball handler, shooter, passer and more lithe defender.
Chad Ford recently likened Bender to Draymond Green -- although he admitted an ideal comp does not exist. Well, Bender was probably the first person in line to approve of the comparison.
The player he finds himself most drawn to these days is Draymond Green, the Golden State Warriors’ versatile power forward who has become a prototype of the "stretch 4" forward that is so trendy these days in the NBA and which many predict Bender will become.
"He’s the guy who is trying to organize the game," Bender said. "He is passing the ball, he is rebounding, he is scoring, he is all over the court, so that is what I am trying to be."
As the Golden State Warriors knock on the door of a second consecutive Championship, the rest of the association is no doubt redoubling their efforts in search of the next ball-busting Green. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson may be lights-out scorers, but many pundits point to Green as the most important player on Steve Kerr's roster. You want to win in today's landscape? Go discover the next versatile stretch 4.
Dragan Bender might be that man, but unfortunately that requires placing a lot of faith in projections. In 28 games with Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, Bender averaged just 14.5 minutes a contest. The immediate inclination is to blame the player, but Bender's lack of playing time was not through any fault of his own. Playing in Europe, or in this case Israel, a different brand of basketball exists. Over there, coaches, not players, reign supreme, so they don't have the pressure of needing to develop young talent. Veterans are more beloved than you ever thought possible!
Remember when Brandon Jennings decided to go to Europe to play professionally instead of attend college? He never saw more than 20 minutes a game in the Italian League. As an 18-year-old, Porzingis only saw 15.2 minutes per game. So, Bender's average of 14.5 minutes doesn't seem unusual. This is made even truer because Maccabi has won 51 titles since the Israeli Basketball Super League began in 1954. Can you fathom what kind of pressure it must be for that franchise to continue to win?
Anyways, let's get back to the topic at hand: how did Bender compare to Porzingis and Green in their age-18 seasons?
All statistics are per 36 minutes.
Dragan Bender was the most advanced and versatile candidate of the trio, but it doesn't necessarily mean his growth will stay positive, much less linear. Busts have happened, especially those with European backgrounds -- the lessons of Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili should remain fresh enough!
Thankfully, I see few similarities to such a worst case scenario in Bender's example. The rise of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol made front offices act hastily in desperate hope of scoring the next star. For instance, did you know the Nuggets general manager at the time, Kiki Vandeweghe, never saw Tskitishvili play? That Denver's organization had no idea Nikoloz would be horrified by a trash-talking Kevin Garnett?
Needless to say, it was pretty clear that Tskitishvili was woefully unprepared for life in the Association, and that he perhaps never even had the true skill to make it in the pros anyway.
Milicic meanwhile suffered from ending up on a veteran team where he wasn't accepted. Chauncey Billups wanted Carmelo Anthony from start, adding "You draft this guy, you're bringing him in to play with Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace ... you knew right away."
Richard Hamilton echoed the same sentiments.
"When you've got Carmelo Anthony out there, aw man, it was hard to pass up on him. I think I had the same reaction everyone else had, and that was ..." followed by a befuddled, puzzled stare that Hamilton held until the end of the interview. The show hosts giggled as Hamilton stayed stone-faced as they went to commercial.
And who could forget the head coach of the Detroit Pistons at the time, Larry Brown -- known rookie tormentor. Many believe he ensured a rocky start to Milicic's future. Is it any wonder then that Darko claimed several months ago of not getting a fair shake?
"Their system is cruel and I don't like it. If a young player doesn't succeed, they don't look after him. That sucks. You have players who are first or second in the draft that get a chance to play. I didn't get the chance. [LeBron James] is a killer now, but he did get a chance in his first year, he could shoot from the stands if he wanted. I barely got the chance. I had that situation in Orlando where if I shoot from perimeter, my coach [Brian] Hill would yell, "Pass to Howard."
In Detroit nothing went right. Larry Brown always told me to go near the basket.
It's difficult, if not downright impossible, of imagining either situation repeating itself with Dragan Bender. Bullying is frowned upon more than ever, and if one attempts to exert some sort of dominance over another, social media will likely be ready to cry foul. General managers, armed with other scouts and analytical soldiers, have undoubtedly made thorough examinations of Bender, his game and surrounding environment. Surprises should now be few and far between.
To finish Bender's breakdown, I want to leave you with one last bit of analysis. As mentioned, Bender is known for his passing, and although his latest mark of nearly two assists a game with Maccabi was nothing to scoff at, his work in preceeding years was much more eye-catching.
Since 1996, there has never been another front court player who remotely approached Bender's 6.7 AST/40 mark. In addition to his U18 exploits, Bender posted assist %'s north of 20% in several Junior Team Stints per Real GM. High assist percentages bode well for NBA big's -- have a glance at all the names that populate this list of bigs at Basketball-Reference.com by descending assist % since the turn of the century.
At the start of last season, Alvin Gentry put the ball in Anthony Davis' hands and asked him to be responsible for directing the offense. Things did not go well. Besides the lower shooting efficiency, Davis' AST% slipped. I've been on the bandwagon for awhile now, but I'd prefer to see more of his possessions start closer to the rim.
If the coaching staff decides Davis should be spending most of his time at center, Bender would slot incredibly well alongside the still hopeful MVP candidate. Bender's abilities seem more conducive to play further out on the perimeter, from both a shooting and passing perspective, while Davis could get back to his ways of drawing swarms of opponents to the paint. Shooters would find more space along the perimeter and AD could get back to one of his strengths, offensive rebounding.
Defensively, the duo would offer the best combination of length and versatility in the league, switching onto perimeter players without the creation of any poor mismatches. Instead of attempting to mimic the best in the league, maybe the Pelicans best hope at giving the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder grief at the top would be through the creation of a new Twin Tower look.
Odds are Dragan Bender, an exceptional prospect, will be drafted prior to the Pelicans sixth overall draft position, but in the rare circumstance he's available, the front office should strongly consider leaning towards perhaps the league's next unicorn.