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Wonderkid: The Dragan Bender Story

From empty gyms in Croatia to the Phoenix Suns the question still exists - who is Dragan Bender?

Sacramento Kings v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Dragan Bender was pegged on draft night as, “The International Man of Mystery”, a risky prospect to take at the top of the draft. Ryan McDonough, the Phoenix Suns general manager pulled the trigger on Bender with the 4th overall selection. Through his rookie year in the NBA, Bender’s play and production did little to solve the mystery surrounding him.

The Dragan Bender story to many NBA scouts and executives starts in Kiev,Ukraine at the 2013 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship. Bender left scouts raving about his potential, playing like his life long idol, Toni Kukoc. His feel for the game, point forward potential, and defensive versatility had executives buzzing.

Why was the Dragan Bender hype at an all-time high?

Not many times you walk into a gym and see this kind of feel for the game.

The ability to lead a break and find the open man in transition.

The defensive versatility to switch on guards.

In essence these are the three main reasons Bender was a top 5 pick in the 2016 draft. Everything else is a byproduct of his natural feel for the game.

Coming into 2014 at the U18 FIBA European Championships Bender continued on that theme along with showing more of a back to the basket post game.

He has a natural touch for the right hand hook shot.

With the Croatian national team Bender felt free and was able to show his natural play-making ability. At the pro level in 2015 Bender showed flashes but was limited to spacing the floor as a 3 Point Shooter.

Bender is at his best with the ball in his hands. The ability to space the floor is great but ends up limiting him.

The Dragan Bender from Croatia has not fully translated to the pro level, neither at Maccabi nor the Phoenix Suns. However, the flashes have been there, which should give Suns fans hope of a more advanced Bender in the future.

I’ll breakdown how the Suns have used him in limited playing time, while using clips from Europe to show why Bender is a special talent.

The key for any player is translating their play from a lower level of basketball to the NBA. It was the same idea for the Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, it can happen for Bender sooner rather than later. The Suns need to give him a chance to write his own story.


High Post

Throughout his career Bender has excelled as a passer in the high post. The Suns have ran a couple different sets for Bender to utilize his passing ability from the elbows.

This is a clip from the Israel National League in 2014 that shows his quick reading ability. Looks like a simple play but watch the initial desire to pass back door before the quick pass to the open shooter, a natural instinct.

You can tell how gifted he is at seeing the floor. The guard on the weak side does not make the cut but he is one pass ahead of everyone. Pretty impressive at that age.

That same instinct out of the high post has translated with the Suns. With Bender facing away from the basket it turns into a Blind Pig type of action out of pinch post where the guard cuts back door. Barbosa can’t beat Simmons but I would expect a quicker Josh Jackson to get to the basket.

With his natural passing ability the open jumper will always be there. He will make it as he develops.

The potential for future Give N Go action is there as well. Bender has a great feel for the facing away back door pass.

The cross court pass out of the high post is easy for Bender. He was able to make it routinely at Maccabi and should in the NBA.

Although it is a routine pass, having a big that can find open shooters out of the high post is valuable.

Now in Summer League 2016 you can see how his passing will translate to the NBA level.

Bender has an uncanny ability to make the quick read into a post entry. The timing makes it 10x easier for the finisher.

This is a good clip from 2013 showing his passing from the wing.

It was clear their was synergy with Alan Williams towards the end of the season. This is a designed set to make the high low entry into Williams from the elbow.

As his career plays out I think his high low passing will show more.

The High Post Split is an action the Suns can use Bender in more. Watson gets creative in these sets as he elects to have Booker as the ball handler. Having a shooting guard making the pass is not common in the NBA.

This is a High Post set from 2016 where they get Teletovic free off the curl screen.

This is the set in 2017 with Barbosa coming on a split cut. Bender needs to be the ball handler in these sets moving forward.

Studying Bender’s film from Croatia I think he is at his best passing from the free throw line area. The center of the floor gives him the option to find shooters at both wings.

This no look pass is a good example. Right now the Suns do not have many “Center” series sets. Quite frankly you won’t see many teams in the NBA with them, but as he runs more PnR action with Devin Booker he will flow into making decisions from the center of court similar to Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors.

Croatia did well getting him to his spots from the center of the floor. With shooters at both wings he is most comfortable.

Bender is also a tremendous passer in a “Rip Series” from the wing. This when the guard sets a screen to free up a big.

This is a good example of his ability to make the quick read in Rip action.

Croatia ran the same set later in the game utilizing his passing ability.

It translated well at Maccabi. With Bender at the wing the guard goes on a 45 cut to the basket. His pass first mentality allows the action to happen.

This is probably going to be the most common type action the Suns run for Bender, either from the wing or the top of key utilizing his passing ability.

Bledsoe sets a Ram screen on Lauvergne getting Len on the right block with Bender as the ball handler on the right wing.

Nifty pass Bender makes from the wing out of PnR action. You can see his pass first mentality translating towards the end of the season as the game slowed down for him.

Low Post

Having a big to pass out of the low post is critical in the Watson system. Zipper Backdoor is a Grep Popovich influence on Earl Watson, a set also ran by the Atlanta Hawks Mike Budenholzer.

Watson brought it out in the legendary 70 point game with Dudley making the pass.

With Bender’s low post passing ability, I fully expect Watson to replace Dudley for Bender.

Top of the Key

Similar to the past clips Bender is most comfortable as a passer from the top of the key with multiple actions. However, there are times where he can get better.

End of the season versus the Mavericks the Suns run Booker on a cross screen getting him free for the baseline jumper. Good timing with the pass from Bender.

Same game versus the Mavericks and you see a poor read from Bender from the top of the key. The tanking Mavs are running a 2-3 zone with Nowitzki on the wing and Booker exchanging corners, Matthews calls for help on the weak side.

Bender fails to read the scheme and make the pass to Booker for an open 3 pointer.


What made Dragan Bender a unique talent in Europe was his ability to run PnR action at his size. The length coupled with his gifted passing ability allowed him to find the roll man in PnR.

This clip shows Bender’s natural patience in PnR. The 2014 U18 European Championships made Bender look like the wonderkid scouts saw towards the end of 2013.

Running PnR at that size with a natural feel is special.

Now in the second half of his rookie season that same patience has translated. As he plays more minutes, I think his passing out of PnR will show more.

What is most interesting his how he takes the between-the legs rhythm dribble before passing. This is a great sign to see on a prospect.

It does not matter if you are playing in an empty gym in Croatia or at a Division 1 powerhouse program, if the rhythm translates it is a sign that Bender is starting to figure it out.

This is how he takes the Two-Dribble Between the legs before passing in HI LO PnR. Almost the same exact as the earlier clip.


At the 2014 U18 European Championships Bender continued to show his natural play making ability. The vision to see the length of the floor and make the pass on target.

This is Dragan Bender at his best. This is the Dragan Bender than needs to translate at the NBA level for the Suns.

Already you can tell Bender always has his eyes down the floor. This is the outlet pass that he made as a kid in Europe all the time. Just needs to develop the confidence as he plays more minutes.


High Post

This is where the Dragan Bender story gets interesting. Everyone has their own opinion on how much of a go to scorer Bender can become in the NBA. From U16 to U18, and his professional stop at Macabbi, Bender has not shown the ability to be a top scorer.

However at the 2014 Adidas Next Generation Tournament, Bender looked like a man among boys. The footwork out of the high post was tremendous. If he can begin to show this at the NBA level, the sky is the limit.

At the NBA level it has been a struggle so far. Not having the same patience, looking sped up.

This is a prime example on a smaller guard in Eric Gordon. I think he has the ability just needs more reps at the NBA level. Is he going to get a chance?

Two patterns you will see with elite scorers in the high post is keeping the ball above their waist, and attacking the defender’s outside foot. This is what gives me hope with Bender moving forward.

He does not have the strength to keep balance right now but the footwork and feel is there. Watch how he attempts to attack the Papagiannis right foot after palming the ball, a hopeful sign if you are a Suns fan.

Once he is able to get more comfortable as a scorer it will have a direct impact on his passing, and in reality make him look like the wonderkid from Croatia. You saw the same progression with Nikola Jokic in Denver his second season.

The scoring out of the high post forces traps and opens up the razzle dazzle pass we have seen from Jokic, and will see from Bender moving forward.

The pass is great but more important is the footwork with the right foot. Just haven’t seen this from Bender so far.

This time the double comes again and you see the crisp passing ability out of the high post.

The most important aspect is the swipe through move before the pass. After evaluating prospects, I think that is more of a natural feel some players either have or don’t. But it goes back to the theme of the Dragan Bender story: Why has his play versus players his age not translated to the professional level?

At Maccabi it was the same idea, the inability to score on a smaller guard out of the high post. Good drop step move here, just can’t get the finish to go.

Low Post

Bender will be a better low post scorer than many people believe. He has shown a natural touch for the right hook since a young age.

The ability to post up smaller guards on the left block in early offense after he brings the ball up is going to be a match up nightmare.

You can tell throughout his career it has been drilled in him to be aggressive generating low post position, this is why I think he will be a good scorer in the post.

The next progression is developing a better left hand. Has to finish on Barea this possession.

Footwork out of the low post is there, going to come down to how fast it translates to the NBA level.

Top of the Key

One of the biggest knocks on Bender coming out of the draft was his slow first step. Watching his film from Croatia to Maccabi you can see how it impacts his ability to attack from the top of the key.

This is a clip where the slow first step creates a poor angle for the drive. Biggest red flag in my opinion on Bender, coupled with his 28 inch max vertical jump.

Bender got much better as the season progressed. Attacking on the catch is going to be key for him to make up for the slow first step. This is a good drive attacking on the catch. You see pros such as Jared Dudley who always attack on the catch to make up for the slow first step.

Another way Bender can get around it is with a scoop layup. Something he has always had to make up for the slow first step.

Bender attacks on the catch and uses the scoop layup.

The scoop layup has already translated to the NBA. Although the slow first step is going to limit him in certain areas he has found different ways to make up for it. Also important to note how the ball naturally stays above his waist, similar to the Papagiannis clip.

PicknRoll Scoring

Bender’s slow first step will effect his PnR scoring at the NBA level. The dominance he had in Europe will not fully translate, but he has showed signs that should excite Suns fans.

Even playing for the Croatian national team Bender has always had basic straight line drives. He needs to develop a spin or counter move.

The slow first step and straight line drive does not create an angle to score.

Another aspect Bender did well on drives was using the gather hop step dribble. A la Dwayne Wade he can use his length so he will not have to get around defenders.

Now in Summer League 2017 where many fans expect Bender to dominate he should the same gather hop dribble in transition after playing a Point Forward role.

However, a positive sign for Suns fans is how rhythm translates. You could tell the game started slowing down as he started reading defensive schemes in PnR.

I understand he misses the shot but he goes to the Two Dribble between-the legs rhythm, something he also did in the Alan Williams clip earlier.

If you study his clips from Europe you see the same between-the legs rhythm dribble. Once the rhythm translates you can tell he his going to be comfortable out of PnR.

Two Dribble Between Legs rhythm coupled with the scoop layup in this clip.

In order to make up for the slow first step, I think Bender is going to have to make large strides getting better at keeping his defender on his hip with a Two-Dribble Rhythm Pull-Up.

It goes back to how good he looked at the 2014 Adidas Next Generation Tournament. This is what he needs to develop as an NBA player if he wants to score out of PnR consistently.

Good swipe through move gets his defender on his hip.

Who is Dragan Bender?

Dragan Bender was born to be a natural play maker at every level of basketball. A prodigious talent with the rare gift to make his teammates better. The special ability to see a play before it develops, or find an open teammate with an perfect outlet pass in transition.

Bender grew up as wonderkid in the eyes of his teammates and NBA executives. It is time to unleash the Dragan. Give him a chance to play like he showed he can throughout his career. A chance to play as a Point Forward in the new wave of position- less NBA basketball.

To all pessimistic Suns fans, I promise you Dragan Bender will be a good player in a Suns uniform, it is now on him and the coaching staff to see how they can translate the Dragan Bender from empty gyms in Croatia to the highest level of basketball.

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