Dragan Bender, a top NBA draft prospect, talks about Kristaps Porzingis, Croatia and sitcoms


Dragan Bender knows the comparisons are coming. One year after the New York Knicks took Kristaps Porzingis, a young, tall, lanky Eastern European, with the fourth pick in the NBA draft, Bender — who is young, tall, lanky and from Eastern Europe — is being projected to go near the top of the draft on June 23.

 

There are plenty of differences, of course, starting with the fact that Porzingis, 20, is from Latvia, and Bender, 18, was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and plays for Croatia. But Bender, who spent this season playing here for Maccabi Tel Aviv, does not shy away from the connection.

 

“This thing that Porzingis has done this year is amazing for any European player who is going to come to NBA draft,” Bender said, “because all the organizations and the players and managers and clubs are going to look differently at European players now.”

 

The 7-foot-1 Bender does not know the 7-foot-3 Porzingis personally, though the two did play against one another once a few years ago. Bender said that he did not know how many points Porzingis scored in the game (“I think he did OK”), but he did remember, with a laugh, that his brother, Ivan, was responsible for guarding Porzingis. Bender also recalled — quite clearly, he said — that his team won.

 

Soon, Bender will bring his game to the United States. In a wide-ranging interview earlier this spring, Bender talked about what excited him most on the basketball court, what it was like living in Israel and which 1990s U.S. sitcom was critical in helping him learn to speak English.

 

Q: How did you start playing basketball?

 

A: I grew up in my hometown Capljina, and I started to play basketball basically because of my brother. In first grade, I started to play, and my brother was in third grade, and we started playing in the kids’ leagues.

 

Q: Were you good?

 

A: I was actually pretty terrible. I was always with the players two years older than me because of my brother. But it helped me a lot because I was the youngest guy, and it helped me understand all these things very fast.

(Bender turned professional at 15. He played in Split, Croatia, before signing with Maccabi and moving to Israel. After a season on loan with a second-division Israeli team, he joined Maccabi’s first team this past season.)

Q: When did you realize that basketball could become your thing?

 

A: When I was 12. I was playing at Niko’s academy (the former European player Nikola Vujcic, who is now an executive for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv). I was 187 centimeters already (about 6-foot-2), and I realized I could make something of it. I was actually playing the 1 and the 2 guard then; I was outside a lot.

 

That’s the kind of basketball I used to play, and I love it. It is pure basketball, and I think it’s amazing when a top player can do these things. Shoot, lead a break or be able to assist a player.

 

Q: So you like shooting from long range?

 

A: I like to give an amazing assist. I grew up watching tapes of Toni Kukoc and all these interviews with him. In one interview, he said a basket makes one person happy but an assist makes two people happy. I liked that.

(Bender is not expected to be part of the Croatian national team at the Rio Olympics and, despite his generally low-key demeanor, he became more animated when discussing his relationship with the national federation. Last summer, Bender — who has an endorsement deal with Adidas — was supposed to play for Croatia in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship, only to leave the team early after a dispute over the brand of shoe he was wearing.)

 

Q: What is the story behind you not playing in the Under-19 tournament?

 

A: It was with the national team. I couldn’t play for the national team because I have contract with Adidas and they have a contract with Jordan brand. Before the tourney, we spoke and they said everything is cool and you can play with Adidas shoes, and then in first morning of the tournament in Crete, the national team suddenly said, “No, you cannot play with Adidas shoes, you need to play with Jordan shoes.”

 

Q: So you went home?

 

A: The year before I had a contract with Adidas and I played with Jordan shoes and I said, ‘OK, this is the first year Croatia’s contract with Jordans and I am not going to be the guy who is going to ruin that,’ and after that I had problems with Adidas. But I dealt with it.

 

Then I came to pre-camp before last summer’s championships and I said to the national team, “We are going to have problems?” And they said, “No, it was OK, you will play with Adidas shoes.” Then I got to championship and they said I cannot play with Adidas shoes, and they put it out in the newspapers about how my family and I are always going to run after money and all this stuff, so I felt like I had to leave. I had no choice.

 

Q: Do you feel like you need an apology from the federation?

 

A: Well it hurt me, not just because they didn’t let me play, but they also started talking a lot of things in the newspapers without any reason to mention my family or myself. Those are not nice things to hear from your own federation. Since then I have not talked to anyone on the national team, so I don’t really need an apology from them, but since then no one has even called me or tried to get in contact with me. I guess it doesn’t matter. We will see what happens this summer.

 

(Bender added that he still hopes to someday play for Croatia’s senior national team — where there are no restrictions on what shoes players can wear — but considers it a goal for a bit further down the road. For the moment, he is concentrating on continuing to develop, both on the court and off.)

 

Q: You said you liked to play away from the basket. Do you think the game is changing to the point where that is almost going to become a requirement for all players?

 

A: Right now you have teams playing with big guys all over the court. I think that’s the new kind of basketball where every tall player needs to know how to play with the ball and cover more positions on the court. It’s what I want to keep trying to get better at.

 

Q: Do you follow the mock drafts to see where you’re being placed?

 

A: A couple of my friends follow these things, but I am not really into it, because you never know what will happen the next day or the day after that. My goal is to be the best Croatian player chosen in the NBA draft. Mario Hezonja was chosen fifth last year, so we will see what happens.

 

Q: Did you learn English in school?

 

A: No, not at all. So I have no idea about grammar. I learned a lot by watching TV.

 

Q: What shows?

 

A: “Friends,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and now I like “Game of Thrones.”

 

Q: You were about 7 years old when “Friends” went off the air.

 

A: I know, but I found it on the internet. I love it. I’ve watched every one. My favorite character is Chandler.


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