Position: Power forward
Weight: 225 lbs
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel (professional)
The Game: Bender is the international man of mystery in this year’s draft after spending his 2015-16 season riding the bench for one of Europe’s top teams as an 18-year-old. He has displayed impressive speed and shot-creation ability for a player of his size. A developing 3-point shot has also been added to his arsenal, but it’s fair to assume NBA teams will have to wait a couple years for him to mature into a reliable contributor stateside. Even then, questions about his strength and scoring ability will give teams pause about his long-term ceiling.
The Statistics (2015-16 season): 10.6 mpg, 2.1ppg, 1.4 rpg
NBA-ready Skill: Court vision. The Bosnia native played a large chunk of his teenage years in Croatia as a guard and those skills have remained after his growth spurt. He’s not only comfortable handling the ball for a big, but he can also create opportunities for his teammates off the bounce and in the open floor.
Needs to Improve: Strength. Bender has a very thin frame for a 7-foot-1 forward, which causes him to struggle with post defense and defensive rebounding. As one of the youngest players in this year’s draft, he will have plenty of time to add muscle. Until then, battling in the trenches at the NBA level will be a tall order.
The Hype: Declining. At one point in the NBA season, Bender was in the conversation for a potential No. 2 or 3 pick in the 2016 draft. With more teams getting a close look at him in recent weeks, Phoenix at No. 4 is popping up as a more likely destination than Boston. Just days from the draft, DraftExpress.com had the 18-year-old sliding all the way down to Denver at No. 7. Bender’s lack of playing time in Israel will cause any team drafting him to rely heavily on forecasting his potential, according to Derek Bodner of DraftExpress.
Looking at Bender as a prospect requires a fair amount of projection, not just because of his extreme youth and lack of playing time, but also because he’s just scratching the surface on many of his skills. Despite showing a high base on a diverse set of skills, it could be a couple of years before Bender turns that into consistent production at the NBA level.
The Celtics’ historical comp: Bender is a unique player due to his size and ball skills, so the closest comparison you could find right now is probably a more athletic version of Kelly Olynyk. He can shoot and pass, like the Canadian seven-footer, but he’s got the foot speed to better handle quicker players on the perimeter and has bigger upside than Olynyk.
Bust potential: High. There’s risk with any lottery prospect, but Bender’s limited track record will force any team to do a heavy amount of projection on how his body and skills will translate. While the success story of Kristaps Porzingis is fresh in the mind of NBA fans, there are plenty of other highly touted European big men (Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitishvili) who could never make the leap.