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Why Dragan Bender Won’t Go First in the NBA Draft

Meet the new International Man of Mystery

Getty Images
Getty Images

International scouting has come a long way since 1995, when the SuperSonics faxed a memo to EuroBasket officials before the tournament’s quarterfinals saying that they’d drafted “a Lithuanian,” without feeling a need to specify. The papers figured the Sonics had drafted Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who would become an All-Star; they’d actually drafted Eurelijus Zukauskas, who would never play in the NBA.

It’s evolved since 2002, when Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe drafted Nikoloz Tskitishvili sight unseen with the fifth overall pick because his assistant had traveled to Italy and marvelled at Tskitishvili’s ability to drain 3s and execute crossovers as a 7-footer in an individual workout; Skita had played only about a dozen games of high-level basketball to that point, and flamed out as one of the biggest busts in NBA draft history. Teams have dedicated international staffers now, along with a network of consultants. The sport is ever-expanding, but we aren’t diving into the world of international basketball blindly anymore.

Dragan Bender is the latest prospect in a long line to be transmogrified by the International Man of Mystery Machine. The 18-year-old has been considered the best young talent outside the States, and a top-three stud, for more than a year. He’s best known for his projected draft position, which had remained static for much of the year. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it’s fair to wonder why a kid who can’t seem to get off the bench for Maccabi Tel Aviv would be handed the no. 3 spot in the upcoming draft. But it’s also fair to wonder why, given his entrenched status near the top of the big boards, he hasn’t been seriously factored into the more prestigious Ben Simmons–Brandon Ingram debate at no. 1.

The International Man of Mystery is never his own person. He is a referendum on the state of global basketball; he is the vague shadow of his antecedent; he is the wild card, the gatekeeper, the headache that front-office decision-makers would prefer to avoid completely. It’s easier to go with the devil you know — the devil that comes with a season full of readily available tape and stockpiles of anecdotal evidence from coaches and scouts. Risk is inherent in every draft selection, but the panic that accompanies selecting the top overseas player is uniquely amplified.

Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but this draft isn’t necessarily bound to the idea of best player available (an age-old construct established to reward consensus anyway), but rather, the best talent available. Since there is no singular prospect lording over the rest of the draft, what teams are looking for is players with specific abilities that can serve as a passageway into the modern NBA. Franchises suddenly need players who project the ability to shoot, pass, defend three positions in multiple ways, and do it all with a smile.

There is usually a clear-cut favorite for the top spot in any given draft, but how often does that consensus prove prescient? There is a bit of a trend that emerges in the past six drafts. The best player, or at least the player who would likely go first overall in a redraft, has followed a type: Paul George in 2010, Kawhi Leonard in 2011, Anthony Davis in 2012, Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013, Nikola Jokic in 2014 (your cries of “WIGGINS?!” are duly noted), and Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015. These are the faces of contemporary basketball, in all its shapes and sizes — and only two of them (Davis, Towns) went no. 1 overall.

Ben Simmons checks off a lot of the boxes, but so does Dragan Bender. This is where the Croatian tantalizes: He has remarkable lateral quickness for a 7-foot-1 player, which bodes well for his ability to switch on screens and guard smaller, quicker players on the perimeter; he’s shown potential as a weakside defender, given his length; he was a savvy facilitator at the junior levels, and while he hasn’t been given the same kind of trust in Tel Aviv, it’s a skill that reflects an individual’s capability more than the talent level of his peers. Most importantly, he’s improved as a shooter every year: In 2013–14, Bender shot 17.2 percent from 3 on 29 attempts; this season, he’s more than doubled up on both his attempts and efficiency. His confidence in his shot is growing, too. In his 39 games so far this season, Bender has attempted at least three 3-pointers in 12 of them (including five games of at least five attempts), and has shot 42.3 percent from the arc in those games. And he kind of smiles!

At least four of the first five prospects taken in the upcoming draft will be big men (or at least have the potential to be positioned as big men) who teams hope will one day occupy as many interlocking circles in the league’s skills Venn diagram as possible. Positionality itself is not normative, it is learned and subject to change. So why not target the youngest player in the draft — a tabula rasa who possesses as broad a skill set as anyone in this class?

Well, for starters, NBA franchises are awfully bad at sticking to a dream. They want their multidimensional spaceman, and they want him now. Bender is entering the field in a post-Process world, where patience is a virtual death sentence. Both the Sixers and Lakers, the two teams at the top of the draft, are under enormous pressure to turn their fortunes around as quickly as possible. The Lakers are officially (reportedly) taking the Croatian prodigy out of consideration at the no. 2 spot. New Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo would face an optics disaster if he drafted Bender. It would be a bookend to his mortifying decision to select Andrea Bargnani with the no. 1 pick in 2006 when he was the GM of the Raptors.

Bender won’t be able to escape Kristaps Porzingis’s shadow, even though they have different games. It’s just the nature of the machine. Bender idolized Toni Kukoc growing up, and that’s at least a feasible window into the player he projects to be — a versatile, perimeter-leaning big man with the kind of imagination to one day operate as a second (or third) facilitator on the floor.

It’ll be difficult for Bender to make the kind of immediate impact Porzingis just did. Kristaps is a superior run-and-jump athlete, and even before he showed New York the totality of his game, he lit Madison Square Garden on fire with putback dunks, showcasing a nose for the ball that few had anticipated. Bender doesn’t inherently have that violence in his play, which may suggest a more gradual assimilation into the NBA. Prior to joining the Knicks, Porzingis was a productive starter on a team (Baloncesto Sevilla) playing at one of the three highest levels of professional basketball (the ACB), and turned 20 less than two months after the 2015 draft; Bender doesn’t turn 19 until a few weeks into the 2016–17 season.

Porzingis has transcended the perception of his frailty, and teams should be empowered by that. Given how early Bender is in his development, there should be little worry that he’ll grow into his frame. The team that drafts him will need to have faith in its development staff to harness the raw tools at Bender’s disposal. Part of scouting and development is to visualize beyond the immediate surroundings. Bender spends most of his 13 minutes per game for Maccabi camped in the corners, waiting for plays that likely won’t unfold for him. With faith and a lot of projection, teams will overlay his body of work and his improvements at the senior level on a blank template of the player they need. It’s like the 3-D model of a finished renovation plan that the Property Brothers unveil to couples in desperate need of a new home, except there is no magic of television, and there are no Property Brothers.

Dragan might be falling. If the latest mock drafts reflect the whims of Danny Ainge, the Celtics, who seemed most likely to acquire Bender with the no. 3 selection, may be succumbing to the lure of Marquese Chriss or Jamal Murray. It’s been 10 years since the Toronto Raptors drafted Bargnani with the first overall pick. Since then, no international prospect playing outside of the NCAA has been drafted in the top two. There won’t be an exception this year; there is a limit to how far mystique and intrigue can take you when you’re a foreign prospect. Bender is tapping on the glass ceiling. There won’t be anyone on the other side until it cracks. But, by then, a different course for the future might already have been set.