Young Croatian ready for his shot at NBA fame
JERUSALEM – In front of a rowdy crowd and with a top basketball executive from the United States watching the game, an absurdly tall 18-year-old from Croatia took shots at his future.
They went in - several times.
Dragan Bender's name is not yet well known beyond hardcore basketball fans, but that may soon change.
Bender, currently playing for Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, is expected to be highly sought after by US professional basketball teams in the coming months.
That means the young Croatian who has not yet finished high school could soon find himself famous, playing against NBA stars LeBron James and Steph Curry.
He seems to be taking it all in stride - very long strides, in fact, given his 2.13-meter height (nearly 7 feet).
"I try to put all of these things on the side and just try to be focused on the game and on the things I need to do on the court," Bender told AFP after the recent game against Hapoel Jerusalem when asked if he was overwhelmed by what may lie ahead.
"Just be focused on the season and on the team."
His team lost that night, but Bender scored 11 points, 9 of them from 3-point shots.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was among those watching from courtside during the game in Jerusalem. Bender has gotten used to such attention.
"Definitely, they're coming to the games," Bender said after a recent practice in Tel Aviv when asked about NBA scouts watching him.
"But that's the kind of pressure that you need to deal with in a professional way."
If the Croatian comes off as mature beyond his age, that may be because he has already had a few years under his belt as a professional basketball player.
Born in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he was discovered early on and moved to neighboring Croatia to attend a basketball academy at the age of 12.
The academy was run by Nikola Vujcic, the former Maccabi Tel Aviv star from Croatia. Vujcic, currently team manager for Maccabi, has been at his side more or less ever since.
Bender said he idolized Toni Kukoc, the Croatian player who had a respected NBA career, mainly with the Chicago Bulls.
He was only 15 when he began playing professionally in Croatia, then signed with Maccabi when he was 16.
He spent his first year in Israel in the second division before moving on to the top level this season.
He lives in Israel without family and returns to Croatia in the off-season, but receives support from Vujcic. Maccabi coach Zan Tabak is also Croatian.
"It's not easy to move 3,000 miles from your family ... but again, I'm here and we are like a family," Vujcic said.
Bender, whose brother plays at college level for the University of Maryland in the United States, said moving to Israel to play professionally at such a young age "was a little bit scary."
In the NBA draft this summer, when teams pick eligible young players entering the league through a lottery, Bender is expected by some to be selected in the top 5.
He has not yet officially declared that he will enter the draft, but is expected to do so.
The reasons he has attracted such attention go beyond his towering height.
He does not lack coordination the way many young tall players do, and his 3-point shooting ability is exactly what NBA coaches want to see.
Offensive play in the NBA has evolved in recent years, with teams preferring tall players who can not only protect the rim on defence and rebound, but also stretch opposing defenses with their shooting.
A new Nowitzki?
Carl Berman of NetScouts Basketball, a US-based scouting service, said he sees Bender "as the best big man available in this year's draft and will likely be a top-five draft pick."
"For his size, Bender is very fluid and versatile," Berman said by email.
"While his shooting still needs improvement, he has dramatically improved it over the last year ... He's very tough and has a will to work to improve his skills."
But like nearly all young players, the lanky Bender will have to improve in several areas to make his mark in the intensely competitive NBA, scouts say.
That includes adding strength in order to play among the league's forceful big men around the basket.
"Listen, the one thing that everybody forgets ... is that he's 18 years old," Vujcic said. "But he's practicing every day."
Inevitable comparisons to other European NBA players are already being made.
They include German star Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks and Kristaps Porzingis, the Latvian who has made a name for himself in his first season with the New York Knicks.
Bender said he wants to be his own man.
"People are always going to compare," he said.
"Everybody coming from Europe who is kind of tall, they're going to compare him to Porzingis or Dirk Nowitzki ... But, like I said, I just try to model my game and try to build my own character on the court." – Rappler.com/with reports by Mike Smith, Agence France-Presse