There was a time when über-athletic 7-footers who were very thin and mostly scored from the perimeter were extremely rare and not too valuable to an NBA team. Those days are long gone. And no one stands to benefit more than Dragan Bender, who is still very much a work in progress.
Bender might look more suited for a year of prep school thanks to his thin frame, but make no mistake, he is an incredibly talented athlete with tremendous upside. Is he representative of what the big man of tomorrow looks like? Absolutely. But is he also a pick that comes with tremendous risk? Again, absolutely. However, it would be a mistake to assume there is more risk associated with him just because he played limited minutes this season on Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv -- that team would handily beat any NCAA champ from the past 20 years.
What Bender does on offense
When you first see Bender play, his thin frame grabs your eyes, mostly because he's a true 7-footer with extremely long arms and a high waist. Those long legs tend to mean better overall athleticism but less power at younger ages. Think of Zaza Pachulia as an example of a lower waist, thus a lower center of gravity, so he is capable of holding position inside better but is less explosive above the rim. Bender is the opposite; he is a court racer and a high-flyer. His speed in transition is at the elite level for the NBA. He is fluid and graceful, yet incredibly fast. Bender can be an immediate contributor to the transition game with that speed, and his ability to catch the ball on the run and finish is mature. He is not a project by any means in this area of the game.
Another of Bender's gifts, typical of high-waisted bigs, is his jumping ability. His 1-foot jump will get him plenty of running dunks and tip dunks, greatly helped by his willingness to go to the glass. Being physical does not bother him much; he is happy to bang with bigger men and has been playing with such men for much of his basketball life. This is a graceful athlete with excellent coordination and timing, perfect components for stretch power forwards to be factors on the offensive glass. This young man will have his share of highlight-reel dunks off missed shots.
Perhaps Bender's most promising talent lies in his perimeter shooting, taking him from elite athlete with size and fitting him into offenses that emphasize big men stretching the court. He made significant progress as a shooter this season in Israel, and though he isn't a great shooter, he is a capable one. Good shot selection and mechanics suggest he can be effective early in his NBA career spacing the floor as a shooter. It's going to take years for him to become a very good shooter, if that ever happens, but this is not a big man who is expected to just be an athlete in his first two pro seasons.
One thing I love about his shot from deep is where he puts the ball before his release. He has the ball high on his body, so considering his size, his shot will be difficult to contest. Players with that release point tend to miss short more than others with lower release points, so it will be important to lower his hips more as he begins the shot. With proper player development, this shouldn't be a problem. With his speed, agility and shooting skill, he can be both a pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop weapon, rare for a young big man.
With Bender so thin-framed, it is good to see how comfortable he is banging around inside. This is one of my keys when evaluating young, perimeter-oriented big men. I remember a story about Omri Casspi as a rookie being asked to guard Amar'e Stoudemire after he was scorching the other Kings big men. Casspi, Kings executives noted, took to fighting the much stronger Stoudemire for every inch of space possession after possession. That competitive spirit is perhaps the key to eventually finding his place in the league as a top "3-and-D" guy after struggling for years to get a foothold in the league.
Bender is equally competitive and does not mind contact. He has the size to finish in the paint and has been well-schooled in using his size and footwork to set up and seal defenders in the post. With all the switching in the NBA now, a 7-foot athlete who can both shoot and post up smaller men is valuable -- a big reason Bender is a consensus top-eight pick.
Playing with men on a top international team limited Bender's chances to show his skill with the ball beyond shooting, though he made a lot of nice and simple passes. He has a good understanding of how and when to pass the ball on the perimeter to help get that "swing-swing-3." He also appears to have some slashing ability with the ball. In time, perhaps as early as this summer, we will see how developed this part of his game might be.
What we can expect from Bender on defense
Kevin Love, rarely considered even a decent perimeter defender, was isolated on Stephen Curry in the final minute of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Such is the new NBA. This frequent switching bodes well for Bender, who has the agility and length to stay in front of guards and wings. He changes direction with ease and can accelerate in the blink of an eye.
He also knows how to use his length to "tall up" when contesting, blocking shots if the shooter throws the ball into his hands. It's a key distinction -- using discipline to know when to go for the block and when to just contest is essential for a high-IQ player. Bender's size and length combine beautifully with his aforementioned willingness to fight, and when we package everything together, we see a potentially special player on defense. His ability to make plays in transition further his value even more.
Areas of concern
With Bender so young and relatively untested for long stretches of time, we have to hope he has a passion for being great. Jan Vesely looked to be just like Bender, outside of his lack of shooting, and he flamed out after being picked sixth overall by the Washington Wizards in 2011 (though Vesely is a great player in Europe and likely could help 20 NBA teams now).
Bender, with not just a work ethic but a desire to dominate, would get stronger fast and develop his game in just a few seasons. Otherwise he could go the way of Vesely, where high expectations end up critically affecting his confidence.
How good can he be?
I was able to see Joakim Noah work out with his Florida Gators team as a freshman. He looked much like Bender, just as tall and about as thin. They had similar agility. Bender is a far better perimeter shooter, while Noah looked to have excellent ball skills and an incomparable motor. I see Bender as having some Noah in him and a more obvious similarity to Kristaps Porzingis.
We have yet to see Bender display their swagger or confidence, but he is professional and should be ready to handle the distractions that come with being such a high draft pick at such a young age. Still, the franchise will bear some responsibility to get the most out of him. He isn't a can't-miss guy. But an athletic 7-footer who can make 3s and block shots is always a threat to be an All-Star, and Bender is absolutely in that category.