Scouting international prospects is a tricky proposition. Most of the available footage of these mystery men are grainy YouTube clips that fail to encapsulate more than a fraction of the player’s overall game. Hearsay and word of mouth can paint a picture of a player, but nothing compares to actually watching the player in person. Dozens of scouts and American fans got the chance to do just that without traveling to an overseas location when Maccabi Tel Aviv and Emporio Armani Milan played in the Euroleague Basketball Tour, which featured games at the United Center and Madison Square Garden.
Dragan Bender, the Croatian sensation who is gaining steam on draft boards, was the talk of the tour.
“The biggest thing (about the tour) is Bender,” said ESPN Insider Marc Stein after his play-by-play duties in Chicago. “Obviously we’ve all read a lot about him, but to see at 17 what kind of potential this guy has is ridiculous. That kid is going to be ridiculously good.”
Bender’s 10-point, one-rebound performance at the United Center wasn’t off the charts, but the skill level and basketball awareness the 17-year old displayed was something to behold.
Shortly after entering the game, with a couple minutes left in the first quarter and the roar of the pro-Maccabi crowd behind him, Bender did this:
The dude he rejected, Stanko Barac, is 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds. Seeing a defensive play like that from Bender was an added bonus because his offense is what has NBA front office personnel drooling.
Bender, despite being listed at 7-foot-1, is capable of playing the three or four. He’s mobile enough to run around with wings on the perimeter and long enough to bang down low. He developed his uncanny versatility at the Croatian Academy, where he quickly morphed from a raw 12-year old into a basketball phenom.
“When I was young, I was playing a lot with the ball. I was the point guard,” Bender said. “I learned how to play all the positions on the court.”
Bender’s eagerness to play multiple positions mirrors his idol and fellow Croatian Toni Kukoc, who he met for the first time before the game against Milan at the United Center. The moment was not lost on him.
“It was great,” Bender said of meeting his childhood hero. “I missed my two chances to meet him in Croatia. I was out of the city, so this was my first time meeting him in the States. It was great. He told me a couple of details about my shot, and it was great to see Croatian people out here in Chicago.”
Bender might not need any advice on his shot. His stroke already looks smooth and mechanically sound for a player with his youth and size:
Bender was comfortable on the floor despite playing with and against players from the highest level of basketball in Europe, most of which are at least a decade older than him. He ran the floor remarkably well for a player with his size and didn’t force anything when the ball was in his hands.
He split his minutes at small forward and power forward and surprisingly performed well at the three. Maccabi’s jumbo frontcourt of Bender, Brian Randle, and Trevor Mbakwe overwhelmed Milan at times. Randle took pressure off Bender defensively while Mbakwe manned the paint.
Bender was given the freedom to roam on the perimeter, run around screens, and receive scoring opportunities from the slick big-to-big passing of Randle and Mbakwe. Bender might have to spend some more time at small forward until he adds weight to his 215-pound frame. Another reason he might stick at small forward is because he’s shown promise defending wings in the early going.
The other NBA prospect on the tour is Milan’s Alessandro Gentile, whose rights are are owned by the Houston Rockets. Gentile is coming off a stellar EuroBasket with Italy that saw him average 16.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game alongside NBAers Danilo Gallinari, Marco Belinelli, and Andrea Bargnani.
“It was a great experience,” Gentile said. “We had a really nice summer together with the Italian national team. Playing with three guys that play in the NBA that are the most talented players for Italy was really helpful for me.”
Gentile led Milan with 16 points and five assists against Maccabi in Chicago. He has a knack for scoring with an arsenal of moves in his repertoire. Gentile’s penchant for scoring leads to bad decision-making at times, which has been his Achilles’ heel as a pro, but he’s a valuable draft-and-stash nonetheless. Everyone wanted to see the NBA prospect battle between Gentile and Bender in Chicago, but no one expected the two to defend each other for long stretches. Despite being about seven inches taller, Bender was asked to guard Gentile during the fourth quarter in a tied game. He was terrific.
Gentile started the matchup with a jab step and iso score on Bender, but that was the only damage the Italian would do on the lengthy youngin. Bender stayed attached to Gentile and fought through screens to deny him any chance to score. He didn’t fall for Gentile’s fakes and forced him to take tough shot after tough shot. His foot speed and length was too much to handle. Bender also played bully ball on offense, forcing Gentile to foul him in the post:
Gentile didn’t see the matchup coming, but he thought the decision paid off for Maccabi.
“I don’t know…it was their choice,” Gentile said of the decision to stick Bender on him. “Try to maybe stabilize him a little bit on defense, trying to deny me to half court. It was a good choice I think.”
Add Gentile to the long list of people that were impressed with Bender during the American tour.
“I’ve never seen him play before tonight, but you could see he’s a really great prospect,” Gentile said. “Really tall, really athletic. He’s really young also, so he will have a bright future for sure.”
Gentile has a bright future ahead of him as well. He said he won’t decide on his NBA future until after the season, but being in America for the first time has made him “even more interested” in playing in the NBA. As for Bender, he’s not thinking about the NBA right now. Not before he improves in Tel Aviv.
“(I) definitely need to improve everything,” Bender said. “I come to the first team with Maccabi, and you start from zero. You need to improve everything. You need to prove that you can play at the highest level.”
He may not be ready for the NBA just yet, but when the time comes, he should be very, very special.
“He’s like Toni Kukoc,” Israeli legend Tal Brody said after the game. “It’s gonna be another year, another two years, but he’s looking good the way he is. He’s a good kid, and he’s getting good training, personal training. He’ll be ready to come to the NBA. Another year, another two years. He’ll be ready.”