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NBA Draft 2016: The Case For Dragan Bender as a Top 5 Pick

Dragan Bender via YouTube
via YouTube

Hurry up and join the Dragan Bender bandwagon while there’s still room.

Croatia’s 7-foot phenom is already the top European prospect on the 2016 NBA Draft radar, and it won’t be long before American fans will revel in his talent.

Bender has delivered impressive versatility across the junior circuit, including an MVP performance at the 2015 Basketball Without Borders camp and a sparkling showing during the 2015 Adidas Eurocamp. The 17-year-old Maccabi Tel-Aviv prodigy has garnered top 10 projections by several mock drafts, but he should climb into the top five as teams continue to witness his multifaceted brilliance.

What exactly makes this ultra-wiry youngster such an elite prospect and top five material? Bender’s long-term appeal and lofty draft value stem firstly from his outstanding offensive versatility.

He doesn’t simply have the potential to play near or away from the basket — he’s already a dangerous inside-out force. Bender averaged a seemingly modest 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in the Israeli second division, but those numbers don’t adequately illustrate his comprehensive impact.

Although Bender is still too slender to battle against 250-pound NBA centers, his low post awareness and scoring skills exhibit promising polish. He’s willing and able to turn over either shoulder for smooth baby hooks, and his mobility and length (7’2″ wingspan, 9’3″ standing reach) aid him superbly in pick-and-roll scenarios.

Bender’s tangible potential on the perimeter is magnificent. He’s not yet an efficient three-point shooter, but he owns a fluid, quick stroke that should make him a legitimate threat from NBA range in the near future. And his all-around repertoire is blossoming, as Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com noted during Eurocamp:

“Converting a number of floaters with deft touch while flashing improved shooting mechanics from the three-point line, creating angles to the rim off the dribble, pushing the break himself, handling the ball like a wing, and making some superb passes, Bender’s offensive skill set was on full display.”

Bender’s passing prowess is particularly striking for someone his age and size. He doesn’t just move the ball and make nice kick-outs to shooters; he creates opportunities for teammates with crafty dishes, putting them in ideal position to score. Bender can execute pinpoint 50-foot outlets, thread the needle on backdoor passes and even make plays off the bounce. Even if he doesn’t become a 20-point scorer, he’s the type of player who will help streamline the squad’s offense and make everyone better.

In the dirty work departments of defense and rebounding, Bender projects as an above-average contributor with a chance to become great.

As previously mentioned, he’s not strong enough right now to jostle with big men for extended minutes. However, he’s starting to build a stronger base, which bodes well for his physical development over the next three to four years.

When you factor in his foot speed, alertness and vertical coverage, it’s easy to see his defensive value. Bender can blanket tons of space both vertically and horizontally, resulting in a bevy of shot-altering contests and blocks. His ability to operate fluidly away from the basket should enable him to switch on pick-and-rolls and close out effectively against NBA shooters. Within his first couple of seasons in the Association, Bender will likely defend multiple positions.

Bender’s rebounding numbers may be limited initially due to his slight frame, but long arms and aggressiveness will allow him to snare caroms outside of his area. It doesn’t hurt that he has terrific timing and a sharp feel for the game.

It might be too early to project Bender’s NBA stats, but that’s only because his roles and usefulness will be wide-ranging. Ricky O’Donnell of SB Nation noted that Bender’s blend of size and skills are well-suited for the positionless nature of tomorrow’s NBA:

The perfect player for the modern era needs the length and athletic fluidity to switch screens and defend multiple positions. This player has to have a competent and confident shooting stroke from deep and be able to put the ball on the floor to get to the hoop…Pay enough attention to the way the sport is moving the last couple years and it’s easy to see, one day, the future might look a lot like Dragan Bender.

O’Donnell isn’t declaring Bender as the absolute perfect prospect here, but he’s noting Bender has both the physical and mental makeup to become an invaluable asset.

As the 2015-16 season unfolds, it’ll become tougher for NBA suitors to resist this two-way 7-footer with inside-out skills. If Bender continues the steady development he’s shown the last couple of years, he’ll be a deserving candidate to crack the top five come draft day.

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