This summer, Phoenix Suns 19-year old Dragan Bender has joined his Croatian National Team for their run to win the Euroleague Championship. Bender is still the youngest player on a very talented team, but has received strong bench minutes in the two “friendly” warmup matches this week against France and Lithuania.
Other current NBA players on the Croatia NT include their stars Bojan Bogdanovic and Dario Saric (Sixers). Three other young Croatians in the NBA declined the NT invite this summer. Ante Zizic (Celtics), Ivica Zubac (Lakers) and Mario Hezonja (Magic) all decided it was more important to prep for the next NBA season, or were heavily encouraged by their NBA team to skip the NT this year. Former NBA player and Euro legend Roko Lene Ukic is the captain of the team.
Bender did not play with the NT last year after being drafted by the Suns, and had declined to play for the U18 team in the two prior years over a shoe dispute. So his return to the National team has been a welcome treat for Croatia, as proven by his large rotation role despite only being 19 years old.
“As a young player, I have to bring some energy, some fire when I come into the game,” Bender told media. “I need to try to change the course of the game, shoot the open shots and play the defense.”
Here’s a comment to file away:
Petrovic: 'I don't know which team will be able to defend us when we'll play Bender & Saric together with Saric as PG. Nobody can in Europe'— Donatas Urbonas (@Urbodo) August 9, 2017
That’s the Croatia NT coach speaking, by the way.
Here’s Bender getting prepped before the first game, plus some other pics of Croatia.
In two warmup games this week, Bender has largely been a tertiary option on offense though he’s had some good moments. He opened the first game making all three of his three-pointers in the first half (though one was later called a two) in an upset of France, and then had this steal and dish against Lithuania.
Dario Saric (five years older than Bender, FWIW) has been the star, with sweet-shooting Bojan providing the outside firepower.
Croatia won both games.
Bender was the team’s third leading scorer on Monday against France. Here is a highlight from the game.
Dragan Bender grabs the offensive rebound over Kevin Seraphin & Boris Diaw & gets the put-back. https://t.co/814upHrPUv— CroSports (@CroSports_) August 9, 2017
And another highlight.
Dragan Bender block vs France. Watch how far back he was & how quickly he closed down. https://t.co/MMhDNe1L54— CroSports (@CroSports_) August 9, 2017
Dragan Bender just said "get that outta here."— CroSports (@CroSports_) August 8, 2017
Here’s the box against France, where Bender had a good all around game.
France - Croatia 87:92— CroSports (@CroSports_) August 9, 2017
Bojan Bogdanovic: 21 pts
Dario Saric: 16 pts, 10 rebs & 4 assists
Dragan Bender: 11 pts (4/5 FG) & 2 blocks pic.twitter.com/TzTgqXjg48
Here’s the box against Lithuania, where Bender had a bad shooting game but otherwise filled the stat sheet with a little of this and that in 20 minutes of play.
Croatia - Lithuania 82:80— CroSports (@CroSports_) August 9, 2017
Dario Saric: 28 pts (9/14 FG, 3/4 3pt), 9 rbs & 2 assists
Bojan Bogdanovic: 21 pts (6/10 FG, 5/8 3pt) pic.twitter.com/NsW5xOT9a1
Croatia plays SLOVENIA next week, who boast not only former favorite son Goran Dragic but also future NBA player and potential top draft pick. I can't wait for that matchup! Hopefully there’s film of it.
The Euroleague Championship takes place in the first two weeks of September.
So we get at least SOME real basketball news over the next two months until training camp finally starts for the Suns.