Basketball's slow adaptation to the present was evident long before the Warriors and Cavaliers met in an NBA Finals series that seems intent on pushing contemporary ideas about the game to their logical conclusion. The days of the low-post scoring big man as a No. 1 option are all but over, the three-pointer has never been more essential and positional versatility is now a necessity, not a luxury.
Once that's accepted, you can start to think about what the ideal basketball prospect for the future might look like.
The perfect player for the modern era needs the length and athletic fluidity to switch screens and defend multiple positions. This player has to have a competent and confident shooting stroke from deep and be able to put the ball on the floor to get to the hoop. He also needs to be blessed with an advanced feel for the game and an inherent passing ability to play in read-and-react schemes like the ones the Warriors and Spurs have popularized. It doesn't hurt if he's 7-feet tall, either.
NBA and college scouts gathered in Treviso, Italy, for adidas Eurocamp this weekend looking for traces of these skills. What they found was a skinny 17-year-old from Croatia with a name that sounds straight out of a fantasy novel who might one day encapsulate everything they're trying to find.
If you don't know who Dragan Bender is yet, you will soon.
It would be unfair to say Bender was a mystery before this weekend -- SI's Luke Winn wrote a great profile on him a year ago -- but his performance at Eurocamp feels like a coming out party. The same way Dante Exum once burst onto the scene at Nike Hoops Summit and Ben Simmons established himself as the top player in his class at Peach Jam, Bender left little doubt this weekend he'll be a top-10 draft pick if he continues on this trajectory.
This was Bender's second straight year at Eurocamp, and his improvement seems apparent from every report. Last year, he was the youngest player at the event as a 16-year-old and looked tentative and overmatched playing against stronger and older opponents. He's still the second-youngest player this year, but everything seems to be coming easier to him.
Impressive showing by Croatian 7-footer Dragan Bender tonight. Outstanding feel. So fluid. Impressive shooting stroke. Guarded the perimeter— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) June 6, 2015
Dragan Bender was awesome in the night cap. Great feel. So fluid. Guarding perimeter players. Nice shooting stroke. Big time prospect.— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) June 6, 2015
Bender signed a seven-year deal with Maccabi Tel Aviv a year ago and spent last season playing in a second division Israeli league, where he averaged 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds over 28.4 minutes per game, according to DraftExpress. He came to New York and was the MVP of Basketball Without Boarders in February. He also put on a show last summer at the FIBA U18 Championships where he started to flash the long-term potential many scouts believe he possesses.
Remember: this a player who doesn't turn 18 until November. He will be eligible to enter the draft in 2016, but before that happens he plans to debut for Tel Aviv's senior team next season and play in Euroleague. Getting him to the NBA is going to be a process for whoever drafts him. His contract with Tel Aviv includes an NBA opt-out clause after the fourth season, which means getting him stateside before the 2019-20 season will require an expensive buyout.
Still, the rise of players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Mirotic in recent years means some team is going to be willing to pull the trigger on Bender. The Bulls waited three seasons for Mirotic and the 76ers are comfortable waiting for Dario Saric, the Croatian forward they took No. 11 in last year's draft. As one-third of first-round picks in 2015 were born outside of the United States, the trend won't stop soon.
It's what makes Eurocamp such an important event, and why it has been called a "one-stop shop" for international scouting. Playing well on this stage is a big deal, especially when you have the size, skill and athleticism that Bender possesses. It doesn't hurt that just saying his name out loud one time -- Dragan Bender! -- might be enough to make it stick in your head forever.
Bender has a long way to go in terms of adding strength to his frame and sharpening his outside shot, but development in basketball is a marathon, not a sprint. Pay enough attention to the way the sport is moving the last couple years and it's easy to see, one day, the future might look a lot like Dragan Bender.
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