All the usual storylines will accompany Maccabi Tel Aviv’s upcoming season.
However, there is one subplot which threatens to overshadow all else.
In what has become a common occurrence in recent seasons, Maccabi once again will be aiming to regain the BSL championship after failing to claim the local title for the fourth time in eight years last term. As always, the yellow-and-blue will also be targeting a place in the Euroleague Final Four, a stage it has reached only once in the past four seasons.
But as fascinating as Maccabi’s pursuit of its goals this season will be, the many NBA scouts visiting Yad Eliyahu Arena in the coming months will have their eyes fixated on a single player.
Dragan Bender is unlikely to play more than 20 minutes per game, but his every move is going to be scrutinized.
For the 17-year-old Croatian is regarded as one of the world’s top talents in his age group and an all-but-guaranteed lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft.
In fact, following his performances in Maccabi’s preseason games against Olimpia Milano in United Center in Chicago and Madison Square Garden in New York over the past week, he is being tipped by some experts to be the No. 1 overall pick next summer.
Bender had nine points in the 76-72 defeat to Milano in New York and 10 points in the 85-79 victory over the Italians three days earlier, seemingly hardly anything to get excited about.
However, the 2.16-meter, 99-kilogram (218-pound) phenom did more than enough to earn rave reviews and even further raise his profile among NBA executives and reporters.
“I can assure you that he’s the realest of deals,” wrote ESPN.com senior NBA writer, Marc Stein. “ The slender 7-footer doesn’t turn 18 until November, but he can already do a little bit of everything.
Bender runs the floor. He handles the ball. He scores inside and outside. He knows how to pass. He’s not afraid to bang even though he clearly needs to add bulk and strength. And, most of all, he’s already an impact player defensively who, despite his tender age and slight frame, can play the 3, 4 and 5.”
Bender was born in Capljina, on the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.
Toni Kukoc was his idol and it isn’t hard to see how he tries to model his game on the Croatian legend, who he met for the first time ahead of Maccabi’s contest in Chicago last week.
Maccabi team manager Nikola Vujcic is the man responsible for Bender’s presence in Tel Aviv, with Dragan enrolling in Vujcic’s academy in Split when he was 13. Vujcic starred for Maccabi from 2002-08 and returned to the club in a management role in June 2013. Bender was signed for four years (starting in 2014/15) plus three years of options. Any NBA team drafting Dragan prior to 2018 will require paying a contract buyout to Maccabi.
Bender spent last season at Ironi Ramat Gan of Israel’s second division, averaging 10.1 points and 7.4 rebounds in 27.7 minutes over 26 games against stronger, faster and far more experienced opponents.
Bender made his big breakthrough at the Under-18 European Championships in Turkey last summer, averaging 14.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists which included a memorable performance against Lithuania. Bender finished the game against the Lithuanians with 34 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 29 minutes.
“Among the college coaches, there was head-shaking disbelief and then, if they didn’t arrive with the knowledge, dejection upon learning that Bender had signed a seven-year contract with Euroleague champions Maccabi Tel Aviv,” was how SI.com writer Luke Winn described the reaction in Konya, Turkey.
Bender entered this preseason deep down the pecking order, but quickly established himself in coach Guy Goodes’s rotation, with his role seemingly growing with every week.
“His age or situation don’t mean anything,” said Goodes about Bender, who registered 5.7 points and 3.3 rebounds in 13.3 minutes over three Winner Cup games. “He rebounded well and hit open shots and was very active. He has progressed very well and he needs to continue that way.”
So far, Bender seems to be taking the hype in his stride.
“It was great [playing in the US],” Bender told reporters following Sunday’s game at MSG. “I was here one time before in an All-Star game but this was the first time playing on this court. I did know [that GMs and scouts would be watching] but honestly, when I step on the court I really do not think about it. I’m trying to focus on the game and try to focus on the things we hear in the locker room and translate it to the court.”
Bender said he is enjoying life in Tel Aviv. “Israel has been great. This is my second year over there. It’s really great.
I love it. I love Tel Aviv and I’m loving life over there.”
Bender was pleased with his performance in the games against Milano and can’t wait for the new season to begin this coming Saturday.
“We are on the right road. It is going to be good this season. We have a great team and great players,” he said.
“I’m trying to be a complete player. To play outside or inside. Whatever the coach needs me to play. I’m getting better for sure every day. I’m excited to start the season.”
Such is the hype around Bender that he has already found himself involved in a so-called sneaker war.
Bender was scheduled to play for Croatia at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship this summer, only to be sent home from Greece due to a dispute over wearing Jordan Brand Nike shoes or Adidas. Bender signed an exclusive endorsement contract with Adidas two years ago, while the Croatian federation has a lucrative contract with Nike. Neither side had any intention of angering its sponsor and jeopardizing its deal and, after watching the first two games from the stands, Bender returned home.
That experience is quickly becoming a distant memory, with Bender continuing to climb mock drafts. DraftExpress.
com currently has him going at No. 5, with Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere and LSU’s Ben Simmons the favorites to be taken in the first two picks.
Plenty may well change, however, until the draft next June, with Bender’s seemingly limitless potential captivating NBA scouts. They will be tuning in regularly over the next year to watch Maccabi games, which should be more intriguing than ever this season as the basketball world follows Dragan Bender growing in front of its email@example.com