Dragan Bender: Europe’s Mystery Man

Hailing all the way from Capljina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dragan Bender is a prospect that few casual basketball fans will know. Both draft analysts and hardcore fans alike have heard the likes of him and his potential.

The sample size on Bender is extremely limited, as he’s playing ~11 minutes per game for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague. Despite minimal playing time, Draft Express has Dragan Bender as their third best overall prospects, trailing Ben Simmons (LSU) and Brandon Ingram (Duke), respectively.

As you read further, I’ll be breaking down what I’ve seen from Bender and then deciding if he’s worth the mid-high lottery pick that many experts feel he is.

As much as I dislike drawing comparisons, there are going to be numerous times where I juxtapose Kristaps Porzingis & Dragan Bender because their situations are very similar.

Physicals

Strengths

With a listed height of 7’1″, Dragan Bender is the tallest player that’s projected in Draft Express’ 2016 Mock Draft. Despite not having incredibly long arms (7’2″ wingspan), Bender has a standing reach of 9’3″. That length alone is going to garner many problems for opponents both on the perimeter and around the basket.

Weaknesses

As with all young players, more so European bigs, his lack of weight is the primary concern. Since the European game is more spread out (although the NBA is starting in that direction), frontcourt players can get away with a lack of size. At 2015’s Eurocamp, Bender weighed in at 216 and put on 14 pounds since being weighed at 2014’s Eurocamp.

While this is a weakness that might hurt him at the start of his NBA career, Bender just turned 18 in November, and his body is still physically maturing. Once he makes a commitment to the weight room, Bender can easily put on 15-20 pounds of muscle.

Offense

Strengths

Fluidity: When I first watched tape of Bender, the first thing I noticed is that he runs very well for a big man; much like Porzingis does. With many guys who are 6’11″+, running for them looks laborious, and Bender looks very fluid. This trait enables him to get out in transition for easy buckets.

Passing: Don’t be deceived when you view Bender’s stats and see 1.9 assists per 36 minutes. While he doesn’t rack up crazy assist numbers, Bender can pass out of the post proficiently and is adept at making the simple pass. His height lets him see over the defense, and he can make really nice outlet passes off of a defensive rebound. To top it all off, Bender is a willing passer.

Shooting Mechanics: Percentage wise, Bender is a poor shooter. Mechanic wise, Dragan Bender has a reliable jump shot. In Euroleague play, Bender boasts shooting clips of 33% from the field, 25% from three, and 50% from the foul line. Technically speaking, his form is nice. It’s not wonky like Dirk Nowitzki and, if he develops it enough, his outside game can actually elevate his offense substantially due to his height, and high release.

Post: Another area where he can excel if he bulks up, and develops his skill. He can elevate over defenders whether it’s a jump hook or a jump shot. If he chooses to face up, his ball skills are good enough, and he’s confident enough, to put it on the deck and attack his defender.

Weakness

The one gripe I have with Bender is that he doesn’t show legitimate playmaking ability. Being a potential lottery pick entails being a franchise-changing player, and he doesn’t display the all-around skill of a Jaylen Brown, Kris Dunn, Ben Simmons, etc.

Yes, he’s a good passer and a fundamentally sound shooter, but hasn’t put up numbers to display it. Is the lack of playing time a factor? It most definitely is, but even his per 36-minute stats aren’t mind-boggling: 7.3p/4.9r/1.9a.

Defense

Strengths

Pick & Roll: One area where Bender will have success in the league is defending the pick & roll. The PnR is run a lot in the NBA and Bender is agile enough to hedge the screen and retreat back to his man, or switch entirely and guard a small player. If he does wind up defending a smaller opponent, he as a human being provides a mismatch due to his long arms and mobility.

Perimeter & Post(*) Defense: Piggybacking off the previous paragraph, dragging Bender out to the perimeter doesn’t inhibit him at all. Quick feet coupled with his long arms help him stay in front of quicker players and his length allows him to contest shots effectively.

*The asterisk is to indicate that sometimes his post defense is a strength, and sometimes it’s not — more in the weakness paragraph. His post defense is a strength when he defenders attempt to shoot over Bender and not bully him. That 9’3″ standing reach is just as effective inside as it is on the perimeter.

Weakness

It’s blatant that his lack of size is a problem for him on defense, at least if the offense player chooses to attack him in the post and use their weight against him. If he’s not on-ball defending, his thin frame can prevent him from being an effective rebounder. Stronger offensive players will, seemingly, be able to move him out of the way.

Conclusion

Dragan Bender’s aura is one of mystery, much like many foreign players before him. I believe he’ll be a lottery pick, but I’m not sure how high, or low, it’ll be. He has all the physical tools to be a good NBA player, and a ton of potential because people know so little about him.

Offensively, he can be great if he puts in enough work — my own personal philosophy is that anyone can be great if they do all the necessary work. On defense, however, he can be even better if he puts on a little weight to make it a little tougher for opponents on the offensive glass.

If I’m an NBA GM/Owner, and I have a lottery pick in the top five, I’m not taking Dragan Bender. Instead, I’ll be taking Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn, Brandon Ingram, Skal Labissiere, or Jaylen Brown — depending on availability.

If I’m in the sixth, seventh, or eighth pick, I’ll heavily consider it, contingent on the “bang for the buck” value of who’s left. I would draft Bender if I have either the ninth or tenth pick and none of the other prospects I want are gone.

*Photo Credit: FIBA*