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 18½ (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.
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?
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?
Who is a player you grew up admiring and try to pattern your own game after?
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?
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:
Suns veteran Alex Len, with whom Bender could likely be paired in the frontcourt, also had words of support for the incoming rookie.
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.