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Dragan Bender could be the Nuggets' dream stretch four

Dan Fatigato Avatar
June 10, 2016

 

Dragan Bender, F/C, Maccabi Tel Aviv

Dragan Bender enters the 2016 NBA Draft with the “next Kristaps Porzingis” label attached to him by many, a nod to the 7-foot-1 forward’s seemingly limitless potential. Brought up in the European mold, where he’s been taught the fundamentals of the game at every position, it’s easy to get starry-eyed watching his uncommon combination of height and skill on film. But his age, lack of experience and slight frame should have observers pumping the brakes on expecting a rookie year explosion similar to the Knicks’ Latvian star. Bender is currently ranked #4 on BSN’s latest Big Board.

Strengths

Bender’s giant size and perimeter ability are what have NBA scouts salivating. He fits the mold of the modern big man in one sense, while breaking the mold in another. There are simply not many 7-foot stretch fours that are quick enough to switch onto guards. Bender’s a projected top-5 pick because he has the potential to become something we’ve never seen before on an NBA court.

Bender has a 9-foot-3 standing reach and 7-foot-2 wingspan. Yet he’s far from a stodgy, paint-bound big man. He has quick feet and runs the floor like a gazelle. Oh, and he won’t be 19-years-old until November, making him the youngest player in the draft.

Although he played just under 14 minutes per game for perennial powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv, Bender flashed game-changing potential on defense. As we’re seeing in the NBA playoffs, the ability to have bigs switch pick-and-rolls effectively can change the whole complexion of a game. Bender can hold his own on a switch against guards or quickly hedge and recover back to his man. He can become a  nightmare on double-teams, as point guards will struggle to find a passing lane around his reach, a la Steven Adams. In the paint, he has a knack for blocking shots from the weak-side, but he struggles a bit in one-on-one rim protection.

The Croatian Bender grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he was coached to play all five positions despite his size, so he’s naturally comfortable out on the wing among much smaller players. He also has the European passing gene. The vision afforded him by his height gives him access to passing lanes many guys won’t see. He’s shown the ability to distribute in traffic to cutters and start the break with accurate outlet passes.

As a shooter, Bender is confident all the way out past the 3-point line, shooting 36 percent on threes for Maccabi and at his best in catch-and-shoot and pick-and-pop situations. He can also exploit hard closeouts with a potent dribble-drive game and is a capable finisher on duck-ins in the post.

Though Bender’s natural position is power forward, his NBA team will surely slide him to the five at times, to further open up space on the floor. That’s a wonderful luxury in the modern NBA.

Weaknesses

What’s not to love, right? Well, let’s go back to his physical frame. All of his red flags start with the fact he’s just 216 pounds with a slight upper and lower body and Bender’s reportedly on a high-calorie diet to help him add muscle with the draft approaching. The team that drafts him will need to get him on a strict protocol in both the weight room and the kitchen.

His post defense is as surprisingly weak as his perimeter defense is stout. Smaller players can back him down for easy opportunities in the paint and he’s a poor defensive rebounder, as players can easily move him off the block. This leads to a propensity for fouling (7.4 fouls per 40 minutes), many on late, out-of-position contests and reach-ins.

Offensively, Bender is not any kind of post threat. Per Draft Express, he averaged a lowly .33 points per possession and a 25 percent turnover rate on traditional post-ups. He’s unable to force his way close enough to the basket and a lack of explosiveness prevents him from finishing with power. In general he’s not an instinctive scorer, especially off the bounce. He needs to be set on the catch to be an efficient shooter. Bender will also need to work on his long wind-up release, which solid NBA defenders will feast on.

Bender’s height gives him a nice baseline as a rim protector, but he will struggle against NBA players his rookie season since he can’t stand his ground with his current lack of strength. He’s also not the most explosive leaper and while his strength will improve, the explosion may not.

Potential fit in Denver – Bender is a player the Nuggets should be targeting, as his ceiling rivals that of just about any other player in the draft outside the top two and he fills two big needs for Denver – shooting and a stretch-4. His faults are fixable with time in the weight room and practice time against a bruiser like Jusuf Nurkic. Unlike Porzingis, he may be two years away from contributing in a major way. He won’t help the Nuggets get into the playoffs next year, but he is on the right timeline with the young core already in Denver. He could eventually be a starting four next to Nurkic or Nikola Jokic, making for a dynamic frontcourt.

Current projection – Bender will be looked at very closely by the Celtics at No. 3 and might not make it out of the top-5. Thus, the Nuggets will have to use their many draft assets to move up in the lottery if they want a legitimate shot at the Croatian phenom.

Is Bender the NBA's next Unicorn? Credit: Ciamillo-Castoria
Is Bender the NBA’s next Unicorn? Credit: Ciamillo-Castoria

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