76ers Draft: Making the Case for Dragan Bender
Ever since the 76ers held the right lottery ball combinations to win the first overall pick in May 17th’s lottery, there has been much debate over what the next course of action should be in the City of Brotherly Love.
That debate hasn’t just been focused on whether to select Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the most important draft pick the team has held in twenty years, though. It’s also included the possibility of trading either Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel for another top selection.
The speculation isn’t surprising. The Celtics have reportedly pursued Jahlil Okafor in the past, and failed to move up into the top-2 in a draft that is largely considered to be a two player draft. They’re a playoff team who wants somebody they can build around, and Danny Ainge reportedly believes Okafor can be that guy.
The speculation makes sense from the Sixers’ perspective, too, since they could theoretically enter next season with Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric vying for minutes at power forward and center, a simply untenable situation even before you add in lower level guys like Jerami Grant, Richaun Holmes, and Robert Covington.
The question this article attempts to answer isn’t so much a “should the Sixers make the deal”, article. That’s a different column in and of itself. This is instead trying to answer “what should the Sixers do if they do acquire another pick”, because I think there’s a name being overlooked.
(Note: I recently wrote a scouting report on Bender for DraftExpress. If you want a detailed scouting report on his strengths and weaknesses, go check that out. This article will be focused on applying those strengths and weaknesses to the Sixers’ unique situation).
There are four main justifications for trading Jahlil Okafor for the #3 pick in the draft.
Those are, in some order of preference, that Okafor will likely struggle to fit with Simmons and Saric, that we already know he struggles to fit with Nerlens Noel, and that he may struggle to fit with Joel Embiid for the same reasons he struggles to fit with Noel. You would have to change everything about your roster to make way for his presence; that there’s a logjam in the front court that could limit Okafor’s impact, and future trade value; that Jahlil Okafor’s defensive struggles are tough to build around; that the Sixers desperately need some talent on the perimeter.
Here, I’ll make the case that Dragan Bender fits in the Sixers’ long-term future, despite being yet another big man.
I care about fit more than depth
Right now the Sixers have a ton of depth in the front court, from Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, to the hopeful additions of Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid.
But that’s not my main concern with Jahlil Okafor going forward; it’s that he doesn’t fit with the rest of the talent the Sixers have already accumulated.
His fit with Nerlens Noel has already shown to be problematic. His fit with Joel Embiid, who you’re going to want to keep near the rim defensively, has many of the same issues. Since you’ll want Okafor at the 5 defensively, pairing him with Saric at the 4 could be a potential disaster. Many of those same defensive concerns he would have with Saric show up again when pairing him with Simmons, and then you have to deal with the clogged paint offensively, and the fact that to best utilize Simmons it will be with the ball in his hands, taking touches away with Okafor.
Perhaps there’s growth in one or two of those prospects and they can mesh together, although it will likely take years to figure this out, and keeping them all around for the duration could torpedo their trade value as they get more expensive, get less touches, and receive less minutes while figuring out. Risk runs both ways.
But while with Okafor you almost have to clear the deck and design your entire team around him, ridding yourself of much of the talent you’ve already accumulated in the process, Bender conceptually fits each and every piece well. His perimeter shooting and shot blocking ability would fit in well next to Simmons, and Simmons’ rebounding would help cover up one of Bender’s biggest present-day weaknesses, and the same could be said of his fit with Saric. Bender’s perimeter shooting and ability to move his feet on the perimeter would fit in like a glove at the 4 next to either Nerlens Noel or Joel Embiid. He even has the ability to move his feet quick enough to spend some time at the 3, an incredibly rare talent for a 7 footer to have, and one that opens up some versatility in the lineups Brett Brown can utilize when trying to resolve this logjam.
Bender also has the potential to be another very good transition player. Quicker out of the gate than almost any center, and quicker than most power forwards, Bender has the potential to add value in transition both as a rim-runner and pushing the ball himself, where his ball handling and passing ability shines through. Adding him to some combination of Saric, Simmons, Noel, and Embiid could really elevate the Sixers’ transition attack.
Whereas Okafor’s fit with his more talented, potentially-higher-impact teammates (Simmons and Embiid, specifically) brings into question his long-term future with the team, Bender’s fit, if he continues to develop, has the chance to be sublime.
Bender’s timeline is different than Okafor’s
Bender’s potentially great fit with the rest of the front court is important, but it doesn’t resolve the logjam and minutes problem the Sixers have by having so many front court players already on the roster.
Jahlil Okafor has always played heavy minutes. In high school, at Duke, as a rookie. He will continue to play heavy minutes. Asking him to take less minutes in order to evaluate Saric, Simmons, Noel, and Embiid is going to be a tough ask for head coach Brett Brown.
But Bender is young. Super young. When Bender finally turns 19 this upcoming November, Okafor will be a month away from turning 21. That youth shows up in Bender’s ability to contribute right away, as he’s just not yet ready to physically compete.
Some will use that as a detriment to Bender, but that’s not fair. He’s more than a year younger than Kristaps Porzingis was when he was selected 4th overall by New York, and at Bender’s age Porzingis was only playing 15 minutes per night. Bender not playing heavy minutes at his age is in no way indicative of his talent level. Bender played for the Croatian U16 team at 14 years of age, turned professional at 15, and played in the top Israeli League, against competition typically 10 years his senior, at 17. Not receiving heavy minutes might make him slightly more difficult to evaluate, but it’s not representative of a lack of talent.
So when Bender comes stateside, he’s not going to demand 30+ minutes per night. He might start off playing 10-15, then progress to 20 during his second season. That makes it easier to fit him into a crowded rotation, and gives the Sixers time to assess exactly what they have — such as Saric’s transition to the NBA, Noel’s fit with Embiid, Embiid’s health, and so on — in the interim.
It’s an especially interesting situation since even the most optimistic Sixers fans don’t expect Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid to definitively work as a tandem down the line. But Embiid can’t be counted on yet, and the Sixers need a backup plan. But what if Embiid works out? Or what if he doesn’t? There’s a chance the Sixers’ front court rotation looks drastically different in two years and minutes are likely to open up regardless of which direction this situation heads in.
Don’t draft guards because you need guards
Here’s the biggest area where I disagree with the Sixers’ supposed line of thinking: I don’t draft guards because I think the team needs guards. I draft guards if I have confidence in them.
And I just don’t have a ton of confidence in the guard crop that is rumored to be the apple(s) in the Sixers eye. Whether it’s Jamal Murray‘s athleticism (average, at best) or defense (um, well below average), or Kris Dunn‘s decision making and inconsistent outside shot, I have pretty significant concerns over any prospect available at #3. The combination of a lack of depth at the top of the draft and the Sixers’ lack of depth on the perimeter creates need, but taking a guard because they’re the best guard option available doesn’t guarantee they’re going to be a long-term staple of the team.
In short, among the players available at 3rd overall I have the most confidence in Bender, and the most interest in what he could become. I’m not passing on that because of a rush to fill a team need.
You can only fill a position of need if the talent translates.
The modern NBA is perfect for Bender
We talk — a lot — about the modern NBA, how it influences strategy, and how that strategy then influences what skills you need out of the various positions. I recently wrote about “small ball”, and how it’s not a fad destined to go away, but instead spurred on by rule changes and here to stay.
If that’s true, and the floor spacing NBA is here to stay, Dragan Bender has the chance to develop into a real counter to that.
The NBA hasn’t moved to prioritizing small power forwards because height is a negative, but because it’s usually easier to get shooting and lateral quickness out of a 6’7″ guy than a 7’1″ one. This combination of skill sets — three-point shooting, ability to move his feet at an elite level for a big, high defensive IQ, and great court vision — are tailor made to exploit all of the rule changes that have gotten us to this point, and defend against the natural advantages perimeter players have as a result of those rules.
Bender’s lateral mobility and fluidity really is unique for a player of his size. It might be “best in class”, even by NBA standards. The stance he gets in, the way he swivels his hips, the way he changes speeds and direction, you just don’t find guys of his size with that ability.
Combine that with a high defensive IQ and a consistently high motor and it’s quite the weapon. Watching Bender bump a roll man off the ball to slow him down, then expertly close out on his man, run him off the three-point line, and still keep him in front of him is a work of art. Bender’s defensive instincts aren’t just great for an 18-year-old playing in a professional league, they’re great for any big man. Period.
With the way the NBA has spaced the court, having that mobility, and those defensive instincts, are as necessary as ever. Bender does that.
Offensively, floor spacing from front court players is obviously incredibly important. I’m not breaking any new ground here. And while Bender’s improvement to 36 percent from three-point range is a great sign, he’s still inconsistent, even if I do think he has the form and touch that cause you to expect continued improvement. He’s not an on-the-move (either off the dribble or off of screens) shooter like Kristaps Porzingis is, but he can certainly become extremely proficient from the catch with repetition. I consider it a virtual inevitability.
Outside of shooting, where Bender is unique on the offensive side of the court is as a passer. That didn’t necessarily show up for Maccabi this past season, as he was playing a largely off-the-ball role and not asked to create, but when Bender has been matched up against players of his age, it’s shined. That skill set is even more advantageous from a power forward than ever. When Bender is put into pick and roll situations, he can attack a slow rotation, force defenses to rotate, and make the correct reads to set up his teammates. When defenders close out to contest his shot, his passing becomes a real benefit, especially with his ability to see over a defense. Again, the open spaced nature of the NBA should heighten this skill set, and the NBA greatly prioritizes those secondary play makers.
Bender reportedly has a $1.3 million buyout he’ll have to pay to get out of his contract, and he reportedly wants to come over.
The concern here is that the Sixers can only contribute $650k, in total, towards buyouts this year, which is complicated by the hopeful addition of Dario Saric, who also needs to have his contract bought out.
This is, admittedly, a potential snag, as it would increase the monetary sacrifice each player has to make if they do in fact want to come to the NBA this year. That being said, I have Bender rated as a better prospect than Saric, so passing on Bender to keep Saric happy would be tough for me to do. I would select Bender and hope I can find a solution that would make both Saric and Bender happy.
Dragan Bender is another big man, somebody who few have seen more than youtube highlights of. That creates a natural resistance to getting behind drafting him.
But Dragan Bender has the chance to be a great fit next to all of the Sixers’ current front court talent, has the skill sets to thrive in today’s NBA, and the defensive profile to help cover up the natural advantages guards receive because of rule changes, and is, in my opinion, in a tier by himself as the 3rd best prospect in this draft.
If the Sixers do find themselves in a position where they have the third pick in the draft, I’m not drafting a guard to fill out the roster. I’m drafting a player who I think has the most talent and who will have the greatest impact down the line, while still being able to fit with the building blocks the Sixers have accumulated.
That, to me, is Dragan Bender.