Synopsis: With the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns selected Croatian phenom Dragan Bender. Unlike the first three picks, Bender played exclusively overseas. As such, most of us have no basis to compare him with the other top prospects. Regardless, the “experts” believe he has the talent to become a star. In contrast, I believe he’s more likely to become a bust. I’ll admit that I undervalued 2015 #4 overall pick Kristaps Porzingis. However, I’ll double down and bet that Bender is not another “unicorn.”
POTENTIAL TOP 10 BUST: DRAGAN BENDER
By the time Dirk Nowitzki retires after the 2017-2018 season, he likely will rank as the 5th leading scorer in NBA history. In addition to scoring a lot of points, the 1998 #9 overall pick earned one regular-season and one Finals MVP award. Still, it’s hard to rank him in the NBA Top 25. Apparently, my son agrees because he ranked Nowitzki 28th based on a methodology highlighted in my last post. Regardless, the 12x All-NBA player indubitably is the NBA’s all-time greatest international player.
Due to the success of Nowitzki and 2001 #3 overall pick Pau Gasol, NBA teams expanded their scouting efforts and began drafting international prospects more regularly. Unfortunately, both players were exceptions and not the rule. Of note, the Nuggets failed when taking 2002 #5 overall pick Nikoloz Tskitishvili and the Pistons failed when taking 2003 #2 overall pick Darko Milicic. In fact, those failures were significant enough for me to name Tskitishvili as the #8 Top 10 Bust and Milicic as an Honorable Mention Top 10 Bust.
MORE LIKELY COMPARISON – PORZINGIS OR HEZONJA?
I referenced the lack of success for most international players as the primary reason for selecting the two leading bust contenders from the 2015 Draft. Specifically, I identified #5 overall pick Mario Hezonja as the most likely (40% chance) and #4 overall pick Kristaps Porzingis as the second most likely (30% chance) busts. Furthermore, I gave Hezonja an 8% chance and Porzingis a 6% chance of being Top 10 Busts.
Instead of supporting my prediction, Porzingis looks more like a future NBA star. Of note, he averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game as a starter in 72 games. Based on these numbers, he trailed only #1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns for Rookie-of-the-Year honors. At 7’3″, Porzingis has shown an ability to be a strong defender down low and a competent outside threat. With a unique skill set, he received the nickname “unicorn” from NBA superstar Kevin Durant.
Taken one pick behind Porzingis, Hezonja didn’t quite have the same level of success. Primarily coming off the bench, Hezonja averaged six points, two rebounds per game for the season. As a starter for nine games, he fared better with averages of 11 points and three rebounds. Still, those numbers certainly don’t remove him from future bust consideration. In fact, his season totals of 478 points, 176 rebounds, 109 assists, 39 steals are similar Tskitishvili’s rookie totals of 315 points, 181 rebounds, 91 assists, and 31 steals. In case you missed it earlier, Tskitishvili finished his career as a Top 10 Bust.
DRAGAN BENDER – ESPN DRAFT NIGHT EVALUATION
Given that Bender played exclusively overseas prior to the draft, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla took over analyst duties from Jay Bilas. Apparently, the network’s primary NBA Draft analyst can’t be bothered learning the wing spans of international players. Regardless, I appreciated Fraschilla’s comments. Of note, he provided one of the best lines of the night when describing Bender as a “7-foot, 1-inch piece of NBA silly putty.”
Despite the ambiguous tone of previous quote, Fraschilla really liked the Suns’ pick. Specifically, he highlighted Bender’s size, agility, skill, and toughness. Furthermore, he described the 18-year-old Croat as a “pick and pop 4-man” who can run the floor and guard the pick & roll. I don’t know about you, but that description sounds a lot like another 18-year-old international phenom drafted with a top 5 pick (i.e. Milicic).
Like Bilas, Jalen Rose took naps during discussions about international players. Too bad because Rose does the best job providing useful comparisons to existing and former NBA players. Without a meaningful comparison, I found the following summary to put Bender’s potential in perspective.
DRAGAN BENDER – THE NEXT KEVIN GARNETT?
If my biggest concern regarding a prospect involved a lack of bulk for a low-post player, I don’t think I would draw a comparison to Kevin Garnett. KG lacked bulk, but he was one of the most tenacious low-post players in recent history. In that regard, Garnett was a different kind of unicorn.
Apparently, Fraschilla believes that Bender can be “top of class” with the development of a jump hook shot. Throughout the history of the NBA, the number of players with that shot can be counted on one hand (i.e. Kareem, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, Mikan). Furthermore, the number of players who mastered that shot can be counted on one finger (i.e. Kareem). As such, the assessment is more than presumptuous.
DRAGAN BENDER – NBA SILLY PUTTY
Described as “NBA silly putty,” Bender still needs to be molded. In ten EuroCup/Euroleague games with Maccabi Tel Aviv last year, he tallied 15 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Mind you, those are totals and not per game averages. In those games, he shot 29% on his two-point shots, 17% on his 3-point shots, and 50% on his free throws. Claiming that he needed to be molded seems like an understatement. I understand that 10 games is not a valid sample size, but still everyone needs to take a step back for a moment. Even Michelangelo would reject the assignment.
As a shooter, Bender reminds me Tskitishvili. As a international prospect with “size, skill, agility and toughness,” he reminds me of Milicic. Granted, I underestimated Porzingis last year. Then again, I don’t believe in “unicorns.” To the extent I’m wrong and unicorns do exist, there certainly aren’t two of them. After all, they’re called “uni”corns.
When providing his assessment, Fraschilla included that caveat that the Suns need to have patience with their #4 overall pick. Specifically, he argued that Bender needs to play limited minutes so that he can be brought along slowly. The Pistons showed extreme patience with Milicic, but the former Serbian didn’t respond well. Hopefully, Bender will accept limited playing time better than Milicic did.
DRAGAN BENDER – CONCLUSION
Put in terms of the NCAA Tournament, Bender is similar to a #1 seed facing a tough match-up in the second round. As a recent example, I remember #1 seed Wichita State potentially facing #8 Kentucky in the 2014 Tournament. I don’t know about you, but I took Kentucky into the Sweet Sixteen that year. Wichita State deserved its seed, but I certainly wouldn’t have taken the Shockers with my fourth pick to win it all. Similarly, I wouldn’t have taken Bender with my fourth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Overall, I give Bender a 50% chance of being a bust and a 20% chance of being a Top 10 Bust. Even if the 2016 #4 overall pick performs poorly, he arguably deserves the Jonathan Bender Exemption. If so, I’ll have to rename it the Benders Exemption given that both players coincidentally have the same last name. I understand that I’m in the minority, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong.