At 17, the Croatian forward has the league drooling over his long-term potential and future lottery teams scheming for the ping-pong balls to select the 7-footer in next year’s draft.
League executives and scouts from Denver, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Utah were on hand at Madison Square Garden to watch Bender.
“Closest thing to Pau (Gasol) I’ve seen,” one Eastern Conference general manager told SheridanHoops. “He plays hard and has great anticipation defensively. The play when he caught a bad pass just inside the 3-point line and with one dribble did an up-and-under layup was incredible.”
Bender also has a 9-3 standing reach, which was on full display when he blocked a layup by Milano’s Alessandro Gentile’s after the Italian star drove by with a quick first step.
“I love (Bender),” another Eastern Conference GM told SheridanHoops. “He could be the next best thing coming from Europe. I saw him play in Treviso in 2014 and NYC this past February. He’s only 17 years old and turns 18 in November. He’s long and athletic with a great feel for the game at such a young age. He’s a no-nonsense, tough kid with a great demeanor.”
Another notable play was when Bender took two long strides from the wing near 3-point line and got into the middle of the lane. The move was reminiscent of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Few players have the dribbling coordination and physical athleticism to execute that type of move.
“I’m trying to be a complete player, outside and inside, whatever the coach needs me to play,” Bender said. “I like to play face up from the 3-point line or from my back to the basket.”
What makes Bender so intriguing is his ability to handle and pass fluidly at his size. With the league putting a premium on versatile players with the ability to defend multiple positions, Bender can play small forward or power forward – and some minutes at center in small ball lineups down the road once his frame matures.
“For me it doesn’t really matter because I’m comfortable at both positions,” Bender said. “Whatever coach needs me in the game to do, I’m comfortable. Right now I feel more comfortable at the four because I’m really tall and on defense it’s easier for me to guard bigger guys than smaller guards.”
Despite his self-criticism, Bender did switch on a couple of pick-and-rolls and displayed adequate on-ball defense on the smaller guards when he was isolated on the wing. With a high percentage of ball screens used in today’s game, Bender’s defensive versatility to show and retreat on screens, trap and defend smaller guards is intriguing.
“This summer I was off the national team, so I came home and tried to improve on the physical part and the shooting part because those two things are going to help me get minutes on the court,” Bender said. “I’m trying to improve my defense – the rotations, on and off the ball.”
Bender’s defensive abilities dwarf those of his role models growing up.
“When I was a kid I was trying to look like Toni Kukoc and try to play like him,” Bender said. “I try to watch Dirk Nowitzki and Nikola Mirotic right now. Dirk is a famous NBA player and he’s playing like a stretch-4 like me. Mirotic came last year to the NBA last year and (I’m) trying to look at how he adjusted to the league.”
Bender is a better defender than all three of his role models thanks to his shot-blocking and perimeter defensive skills. Offensively, Nowitzki is the overall ceiling, Kukoc is a similar playmaker and Mirotic is considered his floor as a predominant stretch-4 if he fails to add strength as a post player.
“Patience is always the key with some of these guys,” one Western Conference executive told SheridanHoops. “People forget when Dirk might be a bust his first year. Kobe (Bryant) didn’t play much his first year. (John) Stockton didn’t start full-time until his fourth year. These young kids are exciting for me to see because they have potential if people can be patient.”
With that in mind, Bender’s stock is as high as ever right now. But the general manager that selects him in next year’s draft must be willing to develop the teenager for multiple years before reaping the rewards. That’s a risky proposition for an executive tasked with transforming a franchise into a playoff team quickly – unless you’re Sam Hinkie.
Some have proclaimed Bender as high as the top overall prospect in the draft based on his performances in Chicago and New York. While Bender’s ceiling is high, that talk is a bit premature. College prospects such as Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram come into their freshman seasons with much anticipated hype. On the other hand, we’ve seen draft stocks fluctuate mightily in a year, and anything can happen.
There is no question, however, that Bender made the most of his tour of the United States. His arrival is eagerly anticipated.