Eighteen years ago, Dirk Nowitzki became the first foreign-born player to be chosen in the NBA Draft lottery without first attending college in the United States. Selected ninth-overall by the Milwaukee Bucks and subsequently traded to the Dallas Mavericks, Nowitzki was an unknown to American fans in 1998 despite an impressive pro career as a teenager in Germany. The Internet was in its infancy then, and even ardent draftniks hadn’t seen much real game tape of the 7’ sharpshooter before the draft. When then-NBA commissioner David Stern walked up to the podium and announced Nowitzki’s name (pronouncing it no-WIT-skee), the crowd at General Motors Place in Vancouver began to hum, then it began to boo.
Nowitzki would eventually become one of the greatest draft day steals, earning All-Star honors 13 times, being named the MVP of the league in 2007, and leading the Mavs to their first-ever championship in 2011.
Still, the history of international talent in the draft since then remains a mixed bag.
Exactly 20 international prospects have been selected in the top 14 of the NBA Draft. Of those, only three have become All-Stars—Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Yao Ming. Many more, from Darko Milicic to Andrea Bargnani to Jan Vesely have infamously flamed out, turning stateside fans off from the idea of their team selecting foreign players at the top of the draft.
We saw this last year, when fans at Barclays Center in Brooklyn mercilessly booed Kristaps Porzingis after the Knicks used the fourth-overall pick to select him. But in spite of early objections from New York fans, the 7’3” big man from Latvia went on to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting following a fantastic first campaign. In doing so, he proved his most outspoken critics wrong, from professional hot take soundboard Stephen A. Smith to the 10-year-old fan who was caught by ESPN’s cameras snapping crying selfies of himself immediately following the pick.
Compounding the perception issue international prospects face is the fact that while top American players begin putting themselves on the map from an early age, players like Porzingis typically only enter American sports fan consciousness in the days and weeks leading up to the draft. And even with dozens of amateurs posting highlight reels on YouTube of players whose names include letters our keyboards don’t even contain, most casual basketball fans simply don’t take that extra step beyond watching March Madness or catching a few highlights on SportsCenter. Most couldn’t tell you the difference between Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Georgios Papagiannis.
Type “Is Kris Dunn” into Google, and the site will suggest a litany of popular recent searches beginning with that phrase. “Is Kris Dunn a senior?”, “Is Kris Dunn going pro?”, “Is Kris Dunn playing tonight?”, and so on. Replace Dunn’s name with those of other top college players who last month became pros, and the results are much the same. “Is Brandon Ingram left-handed?” “Is Jaylen Brown going to Michigan?” “Is Ben Simmons black?” Do the same with the name of Croatian big man Dragan Bender, drafted fourth-overall by the Phoenix Suns, and there’s only one result.
“Is Dragan Bender good?”
It’s a fair question. I’ve watched just about every video there is of Bender on the internet, and I have no idea whether not he can play high-level NBA basketball. I mean, I think he can. He’s 7’1”, he moves his feet like a guard, he has soft touch inside and a pure stroke from the perimeter, he’s the youngest player in the draft at just 18 years of age, and his name is Dragan goddamn Bender! At the same time, he averaged just 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in just over a dozen minutes per game this past season playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli Basketball Premier League. He finished 10th on his team in minutes played, behind former NCAA afterthoughts Ike Ofoegbu and Trevor Mbakwe and some Israeli dude named Guy Pnini. They say Porzingis is a unicorn. Well Bender might be the Loch Ness Monster.
But when Bender’s name was read by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at last month’s draft, there were no boos or jeers from the Brooklyn crowd. Even in Phoenix, where the Suns held a watch party for their fans, the reaction was positive. And at Summer League in Las Vegas this week, there has been a noticeable buzz surrounding him, and for good reason. Beyond sheer mysterious intrigue, the 7’1” Croatian has also been one of most exciting players at the tournament so far.
For those who saw his gangly frame and draft position and immediately thought of him as the second coming of Porzingis, Bender’s play has revealed a style that is perhaps even more unique than that of the Knicks big man. Through three games, Phoenix has used Bender on the perimeter more than in the post, giving him the freedom to bring the ball up the floor after defensive rebounds and to brazenly jack up threes. And despite the fact that he’s averaged just 8.0 points and 5.0 boards while going 3-of-10 on shots inside the arc and 5-of-16 from deep, his mobility, body control, and unique skill set has turned the heads of scouts, writers, and fans alike in Las Vegas.
“I knew a lot about the top three guys in coming into the draft—Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, and Jaylen Brown, but I didn’t know a lot about Bender,” said Victor, a lifelong Suns fan who made the drive from his home in Eastern California to Vegas to get an up close look at the rookie on Sunday. “I liked Kristaps Porzingis a lot last year, and that’s who I heard Bender compared to, so I wasn’t upset. And the more I watch him, he seems to have a lot of potential. Porzingis sets the bar pretty high for Bender.”
Every year, the NBA game becomes more and more internationally influenced. In last month’s draft, a record 28 of the 60 players selected were born outside the United States, and according to a spokesperson from Maccabi Tel Aviv nearly half of their games last season were attended by NBA scouts and general managers. But despite the overwhelming foreign influence in the league today, many fans still cling to outdated biases about international prospects.
On the second day of Summer League, I found Franjo, a Phoenix-born Suns fan whose parents had emigrated from Croatia. He was wearing a Zvonimir Boban soccer jersey and intently watching Bender from the stands at Cox Pavilion. Having watched the 18-year-old extensively with the Croatian National Team and Maccabi Tel Aviv, he had a take on Bender that was more refined than many of his fellow Suns fans. He was quick to add that many casual observers in Phoenix lament the pick because of recency bias of 2013 lottery pick Alex Len, the Ukrainian seven-footer whose first three seasons in the NBA have been remarkably unremarkable.
“I think it’s more an exposure thing than a talent thing,” he said of the perception of foreign rookies and of the international game in general. “This year, nine of the first 15 picks weren’t born here in America, and even with NBA teams, you see them adopting a more open style of play. Kristaps Porzingis set the mark last season, and Dragan Bender will have a tough time matching that.”
For the time being, Bender will be measured, unfairly or not, against the past success of the Dirks and Darkos of the league. But some day, players like him will simply be judged against players who share their playing style, their draft position, and their age.
By then, hopefully Google will have some new suggestions when you type his name.