If Kristaps Porzingis is a unicorn then Dragan Bender is Pegasus.
The next top pick out of Europe, Bender is ranked third by DraftExpress, ESPN and CBS Sports, the current position of the Phoenix Suns in the standings.
Playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel at 7-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Bender effortlessly glides around the floor like a wing and has the passing vision of the guard.
I'm told Phoenix assistant GM Pat Connelly met with Maccabi, talked Dragan Bender.
— David Pick (@IAmDPick) March 28, 2016
He can shoot threes, switch onto any position defensively and is too quick off the dribble for any traditional big man.
Bender has all the tools, but the question for all NBA teams is how much of it will translate to the NBA.
The one aspect of his game that most certainly will is his athleticism.
The Croatian might be the fastest seven-footer in NBA history. He takes advantage of his burners often by beating other big men down the floor in transition.
To put it simply, taking the ball on the break is easy for him. He can handle the ball well enough for a wing and his best NBA skill might be his passing, where he has the next level vision scouts are looking for.
If he gets stronger and puts on more weight, this will make him lethal passing out of the post, with his ability to not only see passing lanes, but make the deliveries most bigs aren’t capable of.
His movement directly translates to defense, where he is a far better defender on the perimeter than inside the key protecting the rim. That allows him to switch in any ball screen situation, an absolute treasure in today’s NBA.
What that leads to is possessions like this, where Bender can effectively close out 3-point shooters and then beat teams down the floor with his speed.
A critical point on Bender is that he works hard to get the most out of his skills. A player that “floated in and out of games” with his talents would be closer to the bubble of the lottery, but Bender doesn’t and that has him as a near lock for the top three.
His shooting is where the debate will rage on as we get closer to June. He’s currently 23-of-58 (40 percent) from deep this season.
He doesn’t have the pure stroke of Porzingis, but he has improved over the past two years and if he can be somewhat consistent shooting the ball that’s massive for his role in the NBA.
Physical development will make or break Bender. At 215 pounds, he will get bullied by some shooting guards in the NBA, let alone power forwards and centers.
Despite his agility, he is not a high leaper. How is he going to survive on the glass and protect the rim if he doesn’t get much stronger?
His wingspan (7-foot-2) will not help him there. Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram and Henry Ellenson rival him this year and past high selections down low like Nerlens Noel, Alex Len, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor have him beat by at least two inches despite Bender being taller.
There’s no doubt that his athleticism is the real deal, but how much will Bender’s ability with the ball in his hands outside the key be able to breathe against the best athletes in the world?
His first step isn’t as nearly as impressive as his top speed, so can he still take the ball off the dribble at the next level? Even if he creates space, how will he handle NBA defensive rotations with the way he drives in a straight line? What about when he gets to the rim? Does he have the explosion or strength to finish at the rim?
Bender might need to develop in the post to become a consistent threat in a half court offense. Unfortunately, he’s raw, and there isn’t one element of his back to the basket game that is overly encouraging.
The good news for Bender is that he’s he youngest player in this process. He’s 16 months younger than Ben Simmons and won’t turn 19 until November.
With where the NBA is headed with pace, space and shooting, Bender seems like a created character on a video game for that style.
The fit for the Suns is difficult to project, especially with the contract situations of Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic.
Bender’s a great piece for any team that needs a power forward, but the Suns aren’t in a position to take the most raw prospect in this area of the draft.
Ingram, Simmons and Brown have shown skills that will translate right away and they should at the very least be able to contribute in minor ways in their first year.
Bender, meanwhile, is averaging around 11 minutes a game playing in Israel.
His contract situation shouldn’t be ignored either. The Suns would need to pay a buyout for Bender to come over to the NBA right away.
Tyson Chandler is turning 34 in October and Eric Bledsoe is 27 in December. The current Suns core was clearly not intended to stay out of the playoffs and could use a direct contribution from the draft. The counterargument is how much 19-year-old Devin Booker’s rapid rise changes that plan.
It would be shocking if that came from Bender, and with a possible three first-round picks in June, the Suns could look elsewhere for their high-upside selection.
A tantalizing prospect, Bender could become an elite role player in due time. The trouble is, the Suns don’t have that time.