Often times NBA front offices find difficulty in judging international talent. Although that has swayed in recent years, with the dominance of players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, it’s still not a perfected craft. For example, current MVP Nikola Jokic fell to the second round in the 2014 NBA Draft. Then you have someone like Dragan Bender, who was drafted fourth overall in 2016, and is essentially out of the NBA at 23-years-old.
NBA Draft Bust Series: Dragan Bender
Pre-NBA Years: The Rise and Hype in Europe
Bender, from Croatia, began his professional career in Europe at 15 years old for KK Split. After an upward trajectory in Croatia, Bender left to Israel two years after his professional debut. It was here that he began his career with Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the top basketball teams outside of the NBA.
His first couple of seasons with Maccabi were spent on loan, but he excelled in his first true season with the team (2015-16). Bender led the squad to the 2016 Israeli State Cup and received the honors of being selected as a foreign All-Star. He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft shortly after.
Draft Selection and the Phoenix Suns
Bender was selected with the fourth overall pick by the Phoenix Suns. They were desperate for talent and thought they found a future star. Bender, viewed as the top international prospect, was supposed to be just that. Bender was essentially supposed to create a future star duo alongside Devin Booker.
His Suns career was up and down. Bender had a number of decent games, but never truly lived up to the fourth overall selection. His career-high in points came in 2018, scoring 20 versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. As the fourth overall pick, that career-high was supposed to be what he was going to average throughout his career.
The writing was on the wall for Bender for a while as he was always a part of the Suns’ Summer League squads. Phoenix definitely tried to allow Bender to grow as much as possible, but eventually declined his fourth-year rookie option. His career with Phoenix was over in 2019.
New Opportunities for Dragan Bender
After his time with Phoenix, Bender joined the Milwaukee Bucks for the 2019-20 season. He wasn’t expected to make a major impact, but serve as a solid bench option for a team with championship aspirations. He failed to make an impact for most of the season, and eventually joined the Wisconsin Herd in the G-League. Bender, unfortunately, didn’t overly impress there either and was waived by the Bucks in February 2020.
Shortly after being waived by the Bucks, Bender signed a 10-day contract with the Golden State Warriors. His first game for the Warriors actually came against the Suns, where he scored 13 points in a win. Bender earned a second 10-day contract in early March 2020, but then the suspension of the NBA season came with the rise of COVID-19. That spelled doom for Bender’s NBA career, as the Warriors did not make it to the NBA Bubble.
In September of last year, Bender re-signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
He’s still just 23 years old, so only time will tell if he makes another return to the NBA.
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