Maccabi Tel Aviv launches another NBA career:  Dragan Bender

Maccabi Tel Aviv, the perennial powerhouse of Israeli basketball, is considered one of Europe’s best teams and a mainstay of Euroleague competition.  No surprise that the club has been a way station for several players who have gone on to play in the NBA, among them Anthony Parker (who played with Toronto and more recently Cleveland, and is currently a scout for the Orlando Magic), Šarūnas (Šaras) Jasikevičius of Lithuania and the Pacers, and of course Israeli native Omri Casspi. All were more-or-less seasoned players upon entering the NBA.

Not so Dragan Bender, the 7’1” Croatian who was a member of the Maccabi squad for the past two seasons. Bender, who is just 18˝ (he will turn 19 in November) was taken in this year’s NBA draft with the fourth pick, by the Phoenix Suns.

Like Kristaps Porzingis (who turned 19 just prior to the start of his own rookie season last year) and Nikola Jukic (a bit older at 20 as a rookie in the 2015-16 season), Bender was drafted in large part on the basis of potential more than his proven track record.

Bender, who had limited minutes with the Israeli team, attracted the attention of NBA scouts and executives based on the fluidity of his game, his basketball smarts, and the versatility which allows him to play small forward, power forward or in the post as needed.  During his two years with Maccabi, Bender also spent time with the club’s second (junior) team, where this past April he registered a 43 point 21 rebound game (along with 6 assists and 5 steals) against Virtus Bologna’s junior team.

Some months earlier, at the season’s outset, he was also given significant minutes when Maccabi played Armani Olimpia Milan in a preseason game at Madison Square Garden in October, 2015. In the world’s most famous basketball showplace Bender  showed his ability to knock down the outside shot and take the ball inside as well.

Bender’s first game in the 2016 NBA Summer League was notable, despite struggling from the field (4-13 for 30%, 1-7 from behind the arc), at and the foul line (3-6), and getting into foul trouble (5 fouls) while hauling down 7 rebounds.  He moved well on the floor, particularly for a 7-footer, and showed great on-court savvy. He was always in the flow of the game and comfortable running his plays. He did not fail to impress the scouts, or his teammates.

Suns’ guard Devin Booker, who was named to the NBA Rookie first team this past season, had this to say about his new teammate following that game:

I like his chippiness out there.  He stuck with me.  I call him young even though I’m only one year older! We had fun out there and got the win. I think he was frustrated that he missed a few shots but he did really well … better than I did on my very first day in Summer League.  I told him that last year I missed my first 10 shots.”

Bender himself offered some reflections to JewishSport.org.

DB    For me it was a great feeling to be with these guys on the court and play. It was the first game and it’s always tough to play the first game. Here it is definitely a different style of game. Pretty much everything is different so at times you have to make adjustments in the game, on the court, and with the ball.  But it was fun.

What was it like to get this much playing time again and this many touches and having a bigger role than you did with Maccabi?

DB    It’s a great feeling. Especially since I haven’t played at all since the end of the season so it’s a great feeling to be on the court again and playing basketball and I’m just looking forward to tomorrow and the games coming up.

I am playing 3-4 (small forward and power forward) here.  That was my role in Maccabi but here I have the ball in my hands more so I can create more and so I love it. In each and every game you have to come out and hustle and be aggressive and that makes it fun. It’s going great so far so we will see.

 

How much did playing for Maccabi  – a club where losing is never acceptable – prepare  you for whatever pressure you might be feeling in the NBA?

DB    Definitely a lot. This past year was a tough year for Maccabi. But with all the pressure we stuck together as a team.  It helped me grow mentally and to prepare for this.  

Who is a player you grew up admiring and try to pattern your own game after?

 DB     Definitely Toni Kukoc (also from Croatia and member of the NBA Champion Chicago Bulls).  He was my role model when I was growing up. I met him last year when I was in the States with Maccabi and we spoke then. But among currently active players I like Dirk Nowitzki because he is a stretch 4 like me, and also Nikola Mirotic and trying to look at how he has adjusted to the NBA. 

Nikola Vujcic (former Maccabi player from Croatia and the team’s current GM) is the person who brought you to Maccabi.  How big is his contribution to your path to the NBA?

DB    I’ve known him since I was 12 years when I first attended his basketball academy. He had a big role in my life growing up.  Then he brought me to Maccabi and for the past two years we have been working together so he is a strong figure for me and a really good guy to be around.

While Bender’s struggles continued in the second day of Summer League play (four fouls inside the first 15 minutes of play – five fouls overall – alongside 5 turnovers), Booker, one of the 2016 Summer League’s most outstanding players, told JewishSport.org:

It’s something that’s going to come – he will figure it out. I told him shots are going to fall and don’t worry about it.  I can see the looks in the rookies’ faces that they’re a little bit nervous and that this is a big deal. It was the same way for me last year. The young guys don’t know what to expect. But I know what to expect this time so I can just go out and have fun. By the end of summer league he will look great.”   

Suns veteran Alex Len, with whom Bender could likely be paired in the frontcourt, also had words of support for the incoming rookie. “He’s a really skilled player; he can knock down the outside shot, he can go to the rim. Plus he brings length and athleticism on the defensive end as a shot blocker.”

Despite his Summer League struggles, Bender’s mobility, skill set and poise will undoubtedly serve him well, and with the support of his teammates and his new coaches, a strong work ethic and the readiness to learn, look for Dragan Bender to follow in the footsteps of Porzingis and Jokic to show himself the real deal.  And half a world away, he surely will make Maccabi proud.

 

 

Article posted July 21, 2016