As the NBA season rapidly approaches (Preseason started! They’re actually on the court!), the vast majority of teams are either gearing up to return to the postseason or trying to break into it. Teams like the Utah Jazz and the Miami Heat, and heck, even the Orlando Magic (maybe) have reason to believe that they’ll fight their way out of the lottery this season.
Yet most of the borderline teams, fighting their way up or trying to prevent a slide down, will not make the playoffs and will have to be comforted by a chance at a high draft pick. At some point in the season, fans of floundering teams will start eyeing mock drafts, and maybe watch a college game or two, to see which players to covet on behalf of their teams. But at this point, the one name everyone will be sure to hear about (but not see much of) will be Dragan Bender.
Bender is a 17-year-old Croatian who stands at least seven feet tall and plays for the Israeli club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, which played a couple of exhibition games in the U.S. recently, giving NBA scouts and writers what was probably their first real look at the kid. And many of them came away very impressed. Here’s a bit of what ESPN’s Marc Stein wrote about Bender:
I can assure you that he’s the realest of deals. The slender 7-footer doesn’t turn 18 until November, but he can already do a little bit of everything. Bender runs the floor. He handles the ball. He scores inside and outside. He knows how to pass. He’s not afraid to bang even though he clearly needs to add bulk and strength. And, most of all, he’s already an impact player defensively who, despite his tender age and slight frame, can play the 3, 4 and 5.
The first name that comes to mind when hearing about a slim 7-footer with range is Kristaps Porzingis, if only due to recency bias. But Porzingis wasn’t spoken of as a versatile perimeter defender the way Bender has been already. Draft Express’ 2016 rankings lists Bender at fifth overall, behind Skal Labissiere, Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram. If Bender’s draft stock is to trace that of other hyped European stars, it will dip as the college season progresses and shoot back up once the season is over and the draft hype machine starts in earnest.
Bender is just 17 years old, so even when he is drafted, he’ll almost certainly be the youngest player in the 2016 draft class. That, plus his season spent at the highest level of European basketball (but away from the eyes of most American basketball fans), will serve him well as the next Euro darling for Sixers and Blazers fans — sorry, Portland — to dream about all season.