It was during Jordan Farmar’s first open gym with Maccabi Tel Aviv—the Israeli powerhouse that he had played for during the 2011 lockout and that he re-signed with in June—that the scrawny 17-year-old with floppy brown hair caught his eye. He was tall and quick and had a wicked handle. His passes were on point. His jumper was fluid and smooth.
“His skillset was unbelievable,” Farmar says now. “I called my people back home that night—I had to tell them about this 17-year-old kid.”
Less than one year later Dragan Bender, a 7-1 Croatian native, is on a collision course with the NBA. He can play inside and out and, according to Farmar, has a “high” basketball IQ. He’s rail-thin and saw less than 10 minutes of playing per game with Maccabi. But teams appear to be more impressed with the fact that he was able to hold his own while going toe-to-toe with some of Europe’s top teams.
“I think he’s going to be awesome,” Farmar says. “He has all the skills and just understands how to play the game, too.”
Bender, for his part, admits that he didn’t put up the kind of numbers he hoped he would with Maccabi. But he also points out that he’s a better player today because he spent a season playing against such stiff competition. League decision makers seem to agree. Bender is widely expected to be one of the first five players to hear his name called by Adam Silver on the evening of June 23 during the NBA Draft.
“Learning how to play with bigger physical players was tough,” Bender says. “But it also really helped me prepare for being in the NBA.”
Bender’s English, which he speaks fluently, was honed through childhood viewings of Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. As for his game, that was refined in duels with his older brother Ivan, a forward at Maryland, and in a local academy ran by Croatian star Nikola Vujčic, a former Maccabi Tel Aviv center who now serves as team manager.
Vujčic brought Bender over to Israel in 2014. Bender took up residence in an apartment by himself and spent a year playing for the club’s junior team before being called up. He spent the past season living alone in a Tel-Aviv apartment and getting acclimated to life as a professional athlete on a big state.
Now, he says, he’s ready to make the next leap to an even bigger stage.
“I’m chasing my dreams,” Bender says. “I’m not trying to model my game after anyone else. I just want to push myself to be the best player I can possibly be.”
Photos courtesy of Maccabi Tel Aviv