Madison Square Garden will host its share of NBA prospects during the upcoming college basketball season, but perhaps none can match the potential of Dragan Bender.
Bender, who will turn 18 in November, will be showcased Sunday in Maccabi Tel Aviv's 12:30 p.m. game against Olimpia Milano.
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People who have seen Bender play rave about the forward's skill set. He can lead the break and fit precise passes through small holes, teammate and Queens native Sylven Landesberg said. Maccabi's coach, Guy Goodes, noted Bender's high basketball IQ, impressive maturity for his age and a vastly improved shot from a year ago.
And, by the way, Bender measured 7-0 ½ in shoes at the adidas EuroCamp in June.
"It's hard to find guys that size who are as skilled as he is," said Jonathan Givony, whose nationally renowned DraftExpress.com projects Bender to go fifth overall in June's NBA draft. "Normally you just don't find players who can handle and shoot and pass and bring footwork and is over 7-feet tall. That's really, really unique."
Bender, who grew up in Croatia, said playing in the NBA would be a "dream." He said he cherishes the stories and advice Maccabi Tel Aviv teammate and former NBA player Jordan Farmar has shared with him. But Bender would not commit to entering this June's draft.
"After the season or in the middle of the season I can think about [declaring]," he said, "but right now all my thoughts are on Maccabi and trying to win a championship."
Nonetheless, Givony said NBA scouts like what they have seen. There are still some question marks, however, notably his weight (216 pounds at the adidas EuroCamp) and lack of experience against top-flight competition.
Though Bender signed a seven-year deal with Maccabi last year, he spent the season on loan to Ramat Gan, a town not far from Tel Aviv.
"This is going to be a big year for him practicing against men all year and maybe getting some minutes in the EuroLeague," Givony said. "That's going to be huge for him."
Goodes noted Bender's progression -- particularly in his shooting -- and maturity as reasons he thinks the forward will be able to adjust to the competition. He also specified that there is a difference between soft and slight.
"He's not soft," Goodes said. "He's really aggressive. He's not afraid to play hard."
Landesberg believes Bender will excel in the EuroLeague and beyond.
"He's going to be a big, big problem," Landesberg said. "I'm excited to see his progression. He's doing great so far."