Based on his performance in the U18 European Championships, which finished on Sunday, Dragan Bender is probably going to be the next big European phenom. Despite being one of the youngest players in the tournament (he won’t turn 17 until November), Bender posted per-game averages of 14.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.2 blocks over nine games, leading Croatia to a third-place finish. Amazingly, his statistical profile was not the most impressive aspect of his performance.
It was his style of play. Bender measured at 6’11, and therefore played most of his minutes slotted at power forward because of his height. However, he possesses the mobility of a true perimeter player and displayed the passing skills of a point guard. Bender is a phenomenal outlet passer, always looking to throw it ahead once he secures the rebound. In the half-court, he operated from the perimeter and had the freedom to handle the ball at times. Bender used his high vantage point facing the defense to hit cutters and feed the post. He also showed great instincts passing out of dribble penetration, having the chance to run a pick-and-roll here and there. Only two players recorded more assists than he did.
Bender proved himself a capable set shooter, with a natural release and a quick trigger. He doesn’t elevate much off the ground, but has a high release point due to his height. He’s still mostly a streaky shooter at this point, though. Bender went 0-for-13 from beyond the arc in the games against France, Italy and Turkey, and shot 50% in the other six he hit at least one three-pointer. Overall, he hit 32.7% of his 37 three-point attempts in 261 minutes. On his makes, his follow through was consistent, with the off-hand pointed up, and he angled his body straight towards the basket.
Though he showed the ability to create off the dribble, his first step was average against this age group (with most players almost two years older than him) and he struggled to create separation attacking closeouts. He also dribbles the ball too high, which makes him susceptible to getting the ball stripped. Bender was unable to finish through contact due to his very thin 202-pound frame in the context of his six-foot-11 height. His frame could also be justification for him being a poor screener at this point, as defenders had no trouble navigating around his picks.
But Bender also showed good touch to finish at rim level and did very well on the glass, ranking in the top 15 in offensive rebounds. He has a very impressive “second jumpability (as Jay Bilas puts it),” bouncing off the ground for a consecutive times quicker than the opposition. Bender hit his 57 two-point shots at a 53.2% clip and averaged 3.5 free throw attempts per 28 minutes, making 22 of his 33 foul shots. He flashed a running hook over his right shoulder from the left block that was quite impressive but did little else from the post.
He was an attentive help defender rotating from the weak side, with great timing due to his mobility, which made him a shot blocking force at this level in combination with his nine-foot-three standing reach (measured at the 2014 Adidas Eurocamp last month) and leaping ability. Croatia had its big men showing and recovering on the pick-and-roll and Bender shuffled his feet well. He is unable to contain dribble penetration through contact due to his lack of core strength, though. And when forced to defend smaller players in the perimeter, Bender did not get in his stance. On the boards, he mostly relied on his leaping ability and his capability to reach the ball at a higher point than the average competition in this tournament to track opponents’ misses. It was enough for him to rank second in defensive rebounds.
Bender just signed a seven-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv last month, a deal that should feature several opt-out clauses for when he decides to declare for the NBA draft. He is unlikely to play with the top squad much next season, but the uniqueness of his skill-set should maintain him one of the most interesting prospects in the globe; one with potential to reach the NBA sometime soon.