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The Final Piece: Dragan Bender

The 2016 NBA Draft might be the best chance for the Philadelphia 76ers to add the last piece to their young nucleus. That final piece of the puzzle could be 17-year-old Croatian big man Dragan Bender.

Is Dragan Bender the future of basketball?
Is Dragan Bender the future of basketball?
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

Last in a series.

Dragan Bender is the future of basketball.

That sentiment was initially espoused by SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell earlier this summer, but there are plenty of talent evaluators who don't think that assessment is entirely off-base.

Think about it: How many 7-footers can run the break, bang in the low post, and casually knock down 3-pointers? How many prospects sign 7-year-deals with top-level Euroleague clubs before their 17th birthday? And besides... with a name like "Dragan Bender", it's almost impossible for the Croatian big man NOT to be good at whatever he chooses to do in life.

In a detailed profile posted last month, J.Z. Mazlish of Upside Motor explained why we should all be intrigued by Bender's potential:

Bender's a 7 footer who can shoot 3s, attack like a wing, pass like a guard, protect the rim and switch onto anyone on the perimeter. Obviously, there is a lot more nuance to scouting than that... but that's an exciting package.

As Marc Whittington wrote in his 2016 prospect primer series, Bender has many of the positive traits commonly associated with European big men (decent shooting, solid ball-handling skills, a high basketball IQ) and a few of the negative ones as well (lack of physicality, questionable defensive instincts). Because of his nationality, Bender is often compared with fellow Croatian forward Dario Saric, but the former is arguably more athletic than the Anadolu Efes star.

Bender's adidas contract prevented him from playing in the Under-19 World Championships this summer (because... sneaker wars), but as a 16-year-old, he more than held his own at the 2014 U-18 European-A Championships where he helped Croatia capture a bronze medal (14.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 4.9 APG, 2.2 BPG, 1.1 SPG). On the second day of the tournament, Bender finished with 34 points and 14 rebounds (in just 29 minutes) against Lithuania, causing one visiting college coach to say the following: "I've been to plenty of these tournaments, and never seen anything like that."

The main issue surrounding Bender is that the seven-year deal he signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv is a 4+3 agreement. So, barring an expensive buyout, Bender won't be able to join the NBA for quite some time.

Until then, Bender will probably log quite a few minutes with Maccabi's senior team - who will visit the States during a tour next month - as he learns the nuances of the pro game. After all... Bender may be the future of basketball, but he still has plenty of work to do in the present.

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