It's OK if your favorite team didn't end up with a top-two pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. When we look back at this draft class 10 years from now, there's a good chance the best player won't be Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. There are plenty of great consolation prizes to be had.
One of them is Dragan Bender, a 7'1 forward with skills tailor made for the modern NBA. Bender has shooting range, passing vision and defensive versatility.
But there is a caveat: He's a raw 18-year-old -- the youngest player in the draft -- and these are merely projectable qualities. Any team that drafts him is taking a risk, though he's worth the chance.
If you're looking for an NBA comparison, players like Boris Diaw, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Mirotic fit the mold of what Bender could one day become. Bender idolizes fellow Croatian Toni Kukoč, and he's adapted many of his versatile talents.
Bender plays just 12 minutes per game for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and most of his time is spent either spotting up or pick-and-popping. He's an effective three-point shooter, at 38.5 percent on the year, with simple, compact mechanics.
He's improved rapidly in recent years, but he still needs to make strides since he has a gradual release that enables defenders to get a hand in his face. This leads to wild misses and air balls, so he'll need to make more adjustments before becoming a knockdown shooter in the NBA.
Anytime a 7-footer can theoretically shoot like Bender, they automatically have potential to attack closeouts at a high level. He's a basic straight-line driver, but even at this point it's not easy for lumbering bigs to contain him.
However, Bender also takes off on his layups too far away from the rim, which can be a hard habit to break. He's not going to posterize many rim protectors, so he'll need to get more creative around the rim and stop settling for floaters.
Perhaps more importantly, Bender needs to keep improving as a ball handler. The rock weighs him down right now, especially when he goes left. His lack of an off-hand is understandable at this stage of his development, but it's an area that could set him apart if he's able to develop it.
Bender is a tremendous passer, which is where the Diaw and Kukoč comparisons are rooted. He's deliberate, reads the floor like a point guard, executes the simple play and can make the flashy play, too. He puts zip on the ball and can accurately deliver dimes off the dribble. He's no Simmons, but within the flow of an offense, Bender could develop into a valuable playmaker.
Plus, Bender has a knack for tossing ridiculous outlet passes that would make Kevin Love proud.
If Bender does tighten his handle, his combination of shooting, dribbling and passing makes him an impactful player on a nightly basis. His lack of athleticism limits his ability to be a go-to scorer. His lack of a mid-range and post game limits his ability to score from all levels. And it's hard to project a drastic level of improvement. But even after all that, the tools are there for him to be a winning player on offense.
For the Celtics, Suns, Wolves or any team looking to trade up, that alone might be enough to make them pull the trigger. But then you look at his defense and that's where you start to realize he could be better than anyone expects.
Bender has a 7'2 wingspan and he's rapidly getting stronger while maintaining his agility.
Check out how quickly Bender moves laterally in this clip. He's attentive, stays in his stance and uses the rule of verticality to block the layup. He's not a great leaper, so no one should ever expect him to be a rim protector in the traditional sense. But in small-ball lineups he can at least comfortably take on the responsibility.
Bender could also develop into a stellar pick-and-roll defender that can contain in multiple ways. In a positionless league, being able to switch and defend different types of players is key, and this is an area where he could someday excel.
Though Bender needs to prove he can stay in front of elite wings and guards on defense, the outside possibility is at least there that he develops into a five-position defender. He has a high work ethic, plays his ass off and has already shown flashes against grown men in the Israeli League. So the signs are there that it could happen, and if it does, then that makes him an insanely valuable piece.
But like any teenager, Bender is rough around the edges on defense. He bites for too many pump fakes and makes questionable decisions as the helper. These are nit-picky flaws though, as the real hurdle will be for him to translate his skills to the NBA, despite not having ideal athleticism.
Versatility is integral to success in the league, so Dragan Bender's defense is ultimately what puts him in the conversation as a top pick. He might be a risk, but it's calculated. It's easy to see him developing into a versatile role player and in the right situation those glue guys sometimes blossom into something special.
Kevin O'Connor can be contacted on Facebook and Twitter @KevinOConnorNBA. His 2016 NBA Draft Guide is available now and can be ordered by clicking here.
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