Dragan Bender is a bit of a polarizing draft prospect these days. Scouts have been high on the 18 year old big man from Croatia since he showed up to last year's adidas Eurocamp and measured in at 7 foot, 215 pounds. Bender flashed interesting skills at that event, showing range, ranginess and a surprising court vision for a player his size. As a 17 year old, this was quite impressive.
Skeptics have abounded since then, concerned both with his lack of top-level production and his slight frame. Bender, considered an almost surefire Top-3 pick in December, had dropped as low as 7th in some mocks, with scouts increasingly frustrated that he hadn't been able to carve out a larger role with his Israeli professional team, Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The scouts and the skeptics both have legitimate points. Bender is a bit of an unknown. But some of that is a necessary outgrowth of the fact that he's 18 and just beginning his professional career.
A Potential Jack of All Trades
Much of the excitement about Bender at this point revolves around the fact that he has developed skills in pretty much every aspect of the game.
On the offensive end, Bender is a proficient scorer from just about everywhere on the floor. His shot, while ponderous and featuring a heavy gather, is consistent mechanically, and he has range from anywhere on the court. He has a decent array of post-scoring moves, including a right-handed hook shot that has more of a sky-hook approach than the more traditional baby-hook of the modern NBA.
Bender is also an above average distributor and passer for a 7 footer. While some of his passes might not transition well to the NBA (he likes to toss half court passes out of the post), for the most part he has solid court vision, and is a willing passer. He also doesn't seem to force passes, which is a really good sign at this point.
With his quick feet, Bender is an above average cutter for his size. He doesn't necessarily display a lot of variation in his cuts to the basket, more or less relying on straight b-lining for the basket, but he's got enough speed on his first few steps that players of comparable size will have difficulty staying with him.
Those quick feet translate into surprising lateral quickness from Bender on the defensive end, as well as in transition offense and defense. In transition on offense, Bender is usually a step or two ahead of his defender, allowing him to leak out for easy transition points.
On defense Bender's lateral quickness is really on display. At 7'1 he moves like a wing, and is able to effectively keep pace with players you would generally expect to get by him. He's also a particularly good help defender, able to help and recover pretty quickly. If anything, at times he might be too willing to help; his agility and energy at this point allow him to recover.
A Likely Master of None
One of the major knocks on Bender at this point is that, while he is proficient at most aspects of the game he's not really a master of anything.
On the offensive end, while he's average at scoring in a number of ways, he really is not dominant in any of them. He has a small stable of go to moves in the post, but he's nothing better than average scoring from that position right now, and he doesn't look like he's going to be more than average going forward. His jump-shot is solid, and in catch and shoot situations he looks like he's going to be above average, but Bender to date has shown little ability to create space and drop face-up jump shots.
On the defensive end, Bender's size, which allows him to compete so effectively on the perimeter, presents serious problems for his ability to play the PF or C positions in the NBA. At 215 pounds, Bender is currently 10 pounds lighter than 6'5 PJ Tucker. This creates serious leverage problems for Bender - against shorter players who weigh about the same as he does, Bender will be easier to box out, while against players his own size Bender will be at a large weight disadvantage. And while other slight players might use great leaping ability to counter their lack of girth (a la Brandan Wright), Bender is a below average leaper.
The problem, then, is where do you play Bender, and when? Is he a center with a stretch game but limited rebounding ability, similar to Mehmet Okur? Is he a stretch 4 with limited ability to defend in the post, like Luke Babbitt? Is he a super-rangy wing that isn't a dominant ball handler or scorer, like Tayshaun Prince?
A Fistful of Comps
The Worst Case Scenario - Jonas Jerebko
Jerebko represents probably the floor for Bender. That's pretty comforting, actually. Jerebko might not be a household name, but he's a solid role player who even after a devastating Achilles injury has managed to contribute at a high level. Jerebko, like Bender, is a jack of all trades, master of none. He can stretch the floor a bit, straight-line cut to the basket, rebound at a modest level, and score at a respectable rate. While this wouldn't be an exciting or particularly fulfilling outcome, its far from the worst outcome imaginable.
The Likely Outcome - Hedo Turkoglu
Now, hear me out. I know Hedo didn't generate much eternal love in the Valley of the Sun during his all-too-brief stint with the team, but its important to remember that for about a 6 year period Hedo was a fringe All-Star candidate, won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, and came in second in the Rookie of the Year Award voting. Hedo was a matchup nightmare with his combination of size, shooting stroke, ball handling ability and court vision. He has a better frame than Bender, but Bender has the opportunity to get to a pretty similar level physically, and projects as a significantly better defensive player across the board.
The Hope - Toni Kukoc
Bender himself, and others (including me) see Toni Kukoc as the ceiling for Bender. For those of you who don't remember, Kukoc, another Croatian, was among the first of the post-Communist players to be drafted and eventually play in the United States. He was a key contributor to the championship winning Bulls teams of the mid and late 1990s. Kukoc has a similar physical profile to Bender - 6'11, 225 pounds - and also had a similar mix of offensive and defensive skills. Bender is on the record as saying that he considers Kukoc a role model and the type of player off of which he models his game. So it seems realistic to think that Kukoc is a ceiling comparison for Bender. Which, to some of you may be somewhat underwhelming. Kukoc, while he was always a better than average player, never had the kind of success in the NBA as he enjoyed in Europe. He topped out in the NBA as the NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 1995-96.
Should the Suns Draft Bender?
Bender is obviously on a lower level than Ingram and Simmons, but he was right in the mix of things after that.
But Bender was almost definitely worth our pick. His unique combination of size, athleticism, court vision and shooting put him a plane above guys who might be taken with a pick that late. The NBA is trending toward increasingly mobile big men, and Bender represents about as versatile and mobile a big as there comes.
The fact that he's 18 is also enticing. He is still developing into a player. If the team wants to leave him to season in Europe a bit, there isn't a major issue. If they decide to bring him over, he's young enough, with enough professional experience, that molding him into the type of player the team wants shouldn't be impossible.