Dragan Bender is not the next Kristaps Porzingis, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
He doesn't have to be to be just like the 7' 3 rim protecting, shot-making, tip dunking Latvian to be a valuable prospect and impact player at the NBA level.
This time of year it's easy to fall victim to lazy comparisons that try to fit certain players into confined boxes because of one non-basketball attribute or another.
While, from a scouting perspective, it's imperative to compare a prospect's physical profile, skill set and mentality to past or current NBA players to project how said prospect figures to translate to the NBA, too often these comparisons are based on how a player looks or where he's from.
Enter Porzingis and Bender. Both are thin, international born 7-footers who the casual fan wasn't fed a wealth of information about in the months leading up to the draft. While he may have shown up on an occasional Twitter Vine in NBA Draft-nerd circles, Bender wasn't all over national television like the Ben Simmons' and Buddy Hield's of the world, making it easy for the casual fan to wonder if the 7' 1 Croatian forward could follow in Porzingis' footsteps and take the NBA by storm.
Having evaluated Bender and Porzingis, both on film and in person over the last couple of years, it's safe to say that, while they may look somewhat similar physically, they're very different players. To show exactly how, DraftExpress took a look at how 18-year-old Bender and 18-year-old Porzingis (during the 2013-14 season, as it's important to compare and contrast players when they're at a similar stage of development) stack up in a handful of different important areas.
The Physical Profile
During Adidas Eurocamp in June of 2015 Dragan Bender measured 6'11.5 barefoot with a 7'2 wingspan and 9'3 standing reach. Bender, who was 17 and a half at the time, weighed 216 pounds. Because Bender wasn't able to attend the 2016 NBA Draft Combine there aren't official measurements on him, but it's safe to say that he's added at least 10 pounds to his frame and may have grown a bit as well.
Even if he hasn't gotten taller, 7'1 in shoes with a 9'3 standing reach are elite measurements for either big man spot. Bender is nowhere near his peak physically, and while he doesn't have a ton of girth in his upper or lower body, he shouldn't have that big of an issue filling out given his strong work ethic and mentality.
Never having attended Adidas Eurocamp or the 2015 NBA Draft Combine, there aren't any official measurements for Porzingis out there. It had been reported, however, that the Latvian big man measured 7'1.5 barefoot with a 7'6 wingspan and a 240-plus pound frame in the months leading up to the draft.
Porzingis was, however, always listed at 7'1 in shoes when he was Bender's age, and noticeably grew sometime between ages 18 and 19 and a half. His frame was also much less developed when he was 18, but slightly more projectable than Bender's.
While both players have above average measurements for their positions, Porzingis' elite length and reach along with his slightly more projectable frame make him more physically unique than Bender.
Athletically, Bender and Porzingis are quite different. The Croatian forward is extremely fluid for his size and it shows when running the floor, attacking closeouts, and chasing perimeter players around on defense. He moves well laterally for his size, and is quick off the floor, but doesn't have great leaping ability, evident by his 27.5 max vertical at 2015 Eurocamp.
Porzingis, on the other hand, moved very well for his size when he was 18, but he wasn't quite as speedy running the floor or as fast twitch,' especially laterally. Porzingis was, however, far more explosive in space than Bender is now, which gave him considerably more upside in a variety of areas.
Context: It's important to know the differences in level of competition that Bender and Porzingis faced. While Bender did play in seven Euroleague games and three Eurocup games, the bulk of his production game in the Israeli Superleague, where he played 31 games. The Israeli league is still a competitive professional league, but it's not on the same level as the Spanish ACB League, where Porzingis played 35 games as an 18-year-old.
Bender put together a fairly efficient season for Maccabi Tel Aviv, which suffered a very down year relative to usual expectations. Playing both the three and the four, Bender made plays on the defensive end, shot it at a decent clip from three on 6.5 threes per 40 minutes, and showed his strong feel for the game, posting a positive assist to turnover ratio.
While efficient, Bender didn't provide much punch as a scorer, averaging only 14.2 points per 40 and getting to the free throw line a forgettable 2.4 times per 40. Bender only reached double figures scoring in eight games (all Israeli League) and never scored more than 16 points in a game. He also left much to be desired as a defensive rebounder, grabbing only 5.6 defensive boards per-40.
Although somewhat inconsistent, Porzingis showed some serious flashes in his first full season playing in the ACB. Averaging an impressive 18.2 points per-40 minutes, Porzingis had a few big games against top competition, most notably going for 20 points in 20 minutes against Real Madrid.
The offensive talent was apparent, as was Porzingis' potential as a rim protector, although he wasn't overly prolific in that area (2.4 blocks per 40). He did struggle on the defensive glass, at 4.5 per-40, and didn't show much in terms of passing ability, posting a 3.8 assist percentage and an 11.2 turnover percentage. Although their numbers are somewhat similar, Porzingis' production, at least as a scorer, was more impressive given the level of play.
Approach and Feel for the Game
Where Bender and Porzingis may differ the most is in their approach and overall feel for the game. Bender's feel for the game is arguably his best attribute. He's a very high IQ prospect who plays within himself and makes the right decisions on the move. Although he wasn't able to show it a ton with Maccabi, he can grab a rebound, push and facilitate in transition. He plays with good patience and is a very mature decision maker. Before it's all said and done, Bender may very well be best described as a playmaking center. He approaches the game in an unselfish manner, making the extra pass more often than not, sometimes to a fault. He's not a naturally dominant scorer or boisterous personality. He plays the game the right way, understands defensive positioning and when to cut on offense, and is rarely going to give you many wow' moments as a scorer.
On the flip side, Porzingis plays with a confident, scorer's mentality. Even at age 18 he wasn't afraid to pull up from NBA three-point range or score 20 points in 20 minutes against Real Madrid, playing with a level of confidence that eventually helped him step into the basketball mecca as a 20-year-old and shine in a big way. Porzingis' feel for the game, however, was somewhat of a question mark as a youngster. He wasn't a lauded passer 10 assists and 29 turnovers in 531 minutes and, like most young big men, got lost off the ball at times defensively. The game looked a bit too fast for him at times on both ends of the floor.
Coming up through the youth ranks, shooting was arguably Bender's biggest flaw. He's greatly improved his stroke, however, as he shot 36% from three on 86 attempts while showing more touch than he has in the past. He was upwards of 40% from three for the majority of the season until a late-season slide. Bender isn't a very dynamic shooter, however, as he needs to be completely set with time and space. He has a bad habit of catching, standing upright and then bending his knees to get into his motion. Bender took only six off the dribble jumpers (as opposed to 82 catch and shoot jumpers) and misfired on all of them. He's made great strides as a shooter and the fact that he can knock down threes with regularity is very rare for a 7-footer, but it's important to keep in mind that he's not, and has never really been, a sharpshooter who makes shots in a variety of ways.
Porzingis shot only 30% from three (4.0 attempts per 40 pace) and scored 0.863 points per possession on jump shots during the 2013-14 season. He also shot only 62.5% from the line. Despite the lack of consistency, it was clear that Porzingis had natural touch and shot a really easy ball. He made a few jumpers on the move and his shot proved nearly unblockable given his size and release point. He had yet to reach his full potential as a shooter and was nowhere near the shot maker that he's become at the NBA level, but the foundation was there. While the percentages favor Bender, the eye test wins out as Porzingis' stroke is more effortless, dynamic and translatable.
Bender isn't a guy who's going to create much offense for himself in the half court. He can attack a closeout and grab and go in transition, but he's limited in terms of shot creation both from the perimeter and in the post. He gets knocked off balance when trying to attack from a standstill and isn't a threat to pull up off the dribble, although it's important to note that he was being defended by quicker, perimeter players more often than not.
Bender also really struggled on the block 0.33 PPP as he lacks the physicality to hold position and isn't very advanced or skilled when he is able to operate from inside of 10 feet or so. He's not absent of touch but he doesn't have a turnaround or really any advanced moves in his arsenal. Aside from spot up jumpers and occasional straight line drives, Bender is fairly limited as a scorer in general.
At age 18, Porzingis wasn't consistently creating offense for himself but he showed enough potential to see how he'd develop that aspect of his game in the future. Scoring 0.92 PPP in isolations (12 possessions) and 1.286 PP in the post (14 possessions) Porzingis showed glimpses by mixing in occasional pull up jumpers and turnarounds from the post. He struggled to maintain position on the block and was often bumped off track as a driver, but had the touch to get to his jumper when he was able to catch inside.
Porzingis had some of the same issues Bender faces in terms of holding position in the post or getting all the way to the rim with a defender on his hip. Bender is also a better ball handler than Porzingis was at the same stage. With that said, Porzingis had a more dynamic jumper to fall back on and he used that both from the perimeter and out of face up or post up situations, which made him more of a threat to create his own offense and score in general.
Despite being 7'1 with a 9'3 standing reach, Bender has some struggles finishing over length and through contact given his slight build and average vertical explosiveness. While he scored an impressive 1.368 PPP at the rim, he took only 38 shots at the cup, a testament to his preference to avoid contact and operate more on the perimeter. He operated as the roll man in only 3.8% of his used possessions and doesn't show a ton of potential as a lob catcher or pick and roll finisher.
18-year-old Porzingis also had his struggles finishing through contact and over length. He attempted only 2.4 free throws per 40 minutes (the same as Bender) and shied away from physicality at times, although he did take 101 shots at the rim, scoring only 1.01 PPP. He wasn't all that explosive from a standstill and that hurt him a bit when receiving drop offs around the rim. Porzingis did, however, show major potential as a roll man and lob catcher as he was a very good leaper in space and had the reach to throw down most everything that was lofted up around the rim.
Porzingis operated much more around the rim when he was 18 and had a little bit more fight and physicality in him than Bender does at this stage. He was more explosive in space and more dynamic as a roller, whereas a lot of Bender's finishes come off of put backs or straight line drives.
Playing mostly on the perimeter for Maccabi, Bender wasn't mixing it up on the glass all that often. His 14.3 defensive rebound percentage is below average, mostly a result of his lack of physicality and elite leaping ability in traffic. He crashed the offensive glass from the perimeter a decent amount, but wasn't all that willing to throw his body around and scrap for boards. He has solid instincts and his reach and mobility will help him improve as a rebounder, but it's not something that he hangs his hat on.
Porzingis also struggled on the defensive glass at age 18. He lacked the body to keep opponents on his back and his awareness left something to be desired, resulting in a defensive rebounding percentage of 12.8. He did, however, do a nice job flying in from the perimeter, setting the table for some of the tip dunks that took the NBA by storm during his rookie year. Porzingis also showed flashes as a defensive rebounder with his ability to cover ground, leap in space and use his reach and strong hands to grab boards in traffic.
Porzingis had better tools on the glass at the same age but both guys struggled equally in that area due to similar deficiencies. Bender shows a better IQ and discipline than Porzingis did, whereas Porzingis had a little more fight along with a slightly better frame, longer arms and more bounce.
Bender and Porzingis have quite a few differences in terms of defensive strengths and weaknesses. Bender's defensive versatility at 7'1 is one the things that makes him intriguing as a prospect. He has the quickness to switch ball screens and either keep the ball contained or recover swiftly. He spent much of the season chasing around wings and guards, which is very unique for a player his size, especially at 18 years for a storied franchise like Maccabi Tel Aviv. He's a bit hunched guarding the perimeter, but his foot speed and agility are definitely strengths of his in today's switch-heavy NBA.
Bender can also protect the rim a little bit thanks to his reach and quick leaping, but he's far from a defensive anchor. He's not all that intimidating at the rim given his frame and doesn't have much pop as a leaper. Bender makes up for some of the deficiencies with his defensive IQ. Post defense is where Bender really struggles defensively. Tall with a fairly weak base and a high center of gravity, opponents can duck in on him and knock him off balance with relative ease. He shows more fight than his stature would suggest, but defending in the post both before and after the catch is an area where bender needs to improve. He also is a bit foul prone despite having a strong IQ. All in all Bender has a lot of defensive value in today's NBA, especially once he fills out down the road.
At age 18 Porzingis wasn't switching ball screens or chasing around perimeter players like Bender. He also wasn't the defensive anchor he's shown he can be at the NBA level. His fundamentals and discipline weren't great, and he too didn't quite have the frame to strike fear into slashing wings. Porzingis' off-ball awareness held him back a bit as a shot blocker as well, although he did show flashes of timing and instincts. Porzingis' potential rim protection was always one of his main sources of intrigue due to his physical tools, the biggest question was unlocking the mental side of things.
While he was fluid for his size, he wasn't all that effective out on the perimeter. His lateral quickness was average and his fast-twitch muscles weren't always firing. He had the length to switch screens and at least hand contest if he gave himself enough space, but it wasn't a major strength of his. Porzingis was fairly competitive as a post defender but he lacked the lower body strength to hold his own consistently, relying more on length to alter shots out of the post. Porzingis, who grew up defending wings as a 16-year-old, had quite a bit of room to improve his defensive instincts and fundamentals as an 18-year-old, although he showed major flashes.
It would be very surprising if Bender stepped into the NBA and began torching the nets the way Porzingis did as a rookie. He's a full year behind Porzingis in age and development, and doesn't have the type of wow factor, scoring ability, or physical tools that Knicks fans and NBA die-hards alike fell in love with.
But Bender has the type of unique combination of size, fluidity, passing ability and shooting potential that should make him a very valuable player in his own right. He may not be the second coming of 36Latvia, but Bender is a lock to go in the top 10 of Thursday's draft, and his ability to grab and go, facilitate, guard the perimeter and make threes at 7'1 will allow him to create his own legacy.