Croatian basketball star Dragan Bender is considered one of the top prospects in this year's NBA draft. Croatian basketball star Dragan Bender is considered one of the top prospects in this year's NBA draft. Croatian basketball star Dragan Bender is considered the top European prospect in the 2016 NBA Draft. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images))

The NBA Draft's X factor: 5 things to know about Dragan Bender

Phoenix Suns make the 18-year-old Israeli star the No. 4 pick overall.

Every spring as the NBA draft approaches, one or two prospects come out of nowhere to capture the imaginations of general managers, coaches and pundits. This year that player is Dragan Bender, an 18-year-old Croatian forward who currently plays for the Israeli powerhouse team Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Bender has the NBA drooling over his size (7'1") and versatility. Many scouts consider him the prototype player – tall, agile, and with the ball-handling and shooting skills to play any position. The Phoenix Suns were obviously impressed. The team selected Bender with the fourth pick during Thursday's NBA Draft.

While Ben Simmons (selected No. 1 by the Philadelphia 76ers) and Brandon Ingram (selected second by the Los Angeles Lakers) are considered the top talents in this year's draft, Bender's a player worthy of taking a closer look at.


He modeled his game after a former NBA star

Born in Bosnia, Bender moved with his family to Croatia as a child, where he quickly fell in love with basketball. The main reason he has the NBA drooling over him is because of his versatility – he can shoot, handle and pass the ball effectively. He models his game after Toni Kukoc, the smooth forward who starred for the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s and, arguably, the most famous Croatian to play in the NBA.


He's young, very young

Dragan Bender started playing for Croatia's Under-16 national team when he was just 14.Dragan Bender started playing for Croatia's Under-16 national team when he was just 14. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Bender, 18, is the youngest player eligible for this year's NBA draft. Being the youngest player is nothing new for Bender. He played for the Croatia national team in the U16 European Championships as a 14-year-old. As a 16-year-old he signed with Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, a European powerhouse that won the 2014 European Championship with former Cleveland Cavaliers' coach David Blatt.


His mentor is now his team's manager

Nikola Vujcic, a Croation basketball star who once played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, has mentored Bender.Nikola Vujcic, a Croation basketball star who once played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, has mentored Bender. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Speaking of signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the main instigators behind his move to the club was the team's manager, fellow Croatian Nikola Vujcic. One of the top European players of the last decade, Vujcic starred for Maccabi for many years. Bender's first exposure to organized basketball was at an academy run by Vujcic in Croatia. Bender attended along with his older brother Ivan, who recently completed his freshman season for the University of Maryland basketball team.


He doesn't come cheap

At over 7 feet, Dragan Bender can play in the post or on the wing, making him an asset to NBA teams.Dragan Bender can play in the post or on the wing, making him an asset to NBA teams. (Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Bender is under contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv for another five years, but generous buyout clauses mean that he will be available immediately to whoever drafts him – if they are willing to shell out a reported $1.3 million for his contract rights.


He really likes Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's waterfront Tel Aviv's waterfront. (Photo: sergei25 /Shutterstock)

While his next stop will be a major American city – Philadelphia (1), Los Angeles (2) and Boston (3) have the first 3 picks – Bender has made no secret of his love for his current home, telling local Israeli media last offseason the country "has been great," while adding of Tel Aviv, "I love it ... I’m loving life over there.”

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