Ike Ofoegbu is a 31-year-old forward from Texas who has played for nine professional teams, from Mexico to Puerto Rico to Israel, a modern-day basketball vagabond. Over the years, he has seen wide-eyed young players arrive toting NBA dreams, only to realize that their paths would probably end somewhere less glamorous.
But while playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the prestigious Israeli Super League this season, it was impossible for Ofoegbu not to see that there was something different about Dragan Bender.
It seemed the 7-foot-1-inch 18-year-old did something to grab everyone’s attention at each practice. On one day, he might soar in for rebounds that others simply could not corral, and on another he would squat in a defensive stance and harass a point guard who should be able to blow past him.
“It’s unbelievable, the stuff he can do at his size,” Ofoegbu said. “It shocks people all the time. He’s basically like a stretched-out 6-2 guy. He could be something special.
“He’s more agile than Dirk [Nowitzki], I think. Maybe he won’t be a player of that magnitude, but I see him being something like that. To me, he’s a poor man’s Kevin Durant.
“When you see him, his length will be shocking. It’s going to really be shocking, just his length and the way he moves.”
This might sound like excessive praise for someone who played just 14.5 minutes per game this season and could not crack the starting lineup on a team whose most famous player was former Lakers guard Jordan Farmar, who left at midseason.
But Ofoegbu is hardly alone in his admiration of the most intriguing prospect in this year’s NBA Draft. Bender is likely to be one of the first five players chosen Thursday night, and the Celtics are in the process of determining whether he is worth selecting with the No. 3 overall pick.
Bender is scheduled to work out for Boston at the team’s Waltham training facility Tuesday before heading to New York. It will be the Celtics’ last chance to gauge his potential, to determine whether he can one day become a superstar.
“Now that he’s on the doorstep of the NBA, there’s still a little bit of mystery about him and his game,” said ESPN international basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla. “You’re still not sure what you’re getting, because the sample size is so small.
“But between his age, size, athleticism, and improving skill level, it’s hard to find too many guys around the world quite like him.”
Chasing a dream
Bender was born in Capljina, a small agricultural town in Bosnia and Herzegovina that sits near the Croatian border, about 10 miles from the Adriatic Sea. He developed a love for basketball quite early, fawning over highlights of former Chicago Bull Toni Kukoc, a Croatian star.
When Bender was 12, his father brought him and his older brother Ivan to Split, Croatia, where they enrolled at a basketball academy run by former European standout Nikola Vujcic.
“In the beginning it was tough,” Bender said. “But then you just realize it’s the way of life that you chose, because you have something amazing come to you if you work hard and you’re surrounded by good people. Eventually, it’s going to come.”
Bender and his brother lived in a house with a few others from the academy. In addition to schoolwork, they practiced basketball for four hours each day. Bender says the sessions were “pretty intense.” Initially, he played guard quite often, developing the passing and ball-handling skills that stuck with him as he sprouted.
Even though it was difficult to be away from home for so long, Bender understood it was the best path to chase his dream.
“It helped me a lot, just living on my own and going to school every day and practices,” he said. “So it was a pretty cool system, and looking back on that day right now, it was a really good decision to move from my home to the academy in Croatia.”
Vujcic played professionally for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and in 2013, he became the team’s manager. A year later, at age 16, Bender signed a seven-year deal with the club.
It did not take long for Bender to make a name for himself on the international basketball scene. He played in the FIBA junior championships as well as several global showcase events.
Ivan Bender enrolled at the University of Maryland in 2014, and the following winter, he and teammate Rasheed Sulaimon went to New York and saw Dragan earn most valuable player honors at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp.
“To have his versatility and his skill at his age and his size, he definitely opens eyes,” Sulaimon said. “You can see there’s room for growth, but the sky’s the limit for him. He just has a presence.”
Not many minutes
After playing for a second-division team in Israel last year, Bender joined Maccabi Tel Aviv’s senior team this season. Although he showed flashes of potential, he was restricted in a limited role.
The team was not focused on Bender’s development; it was focused on winning. Bender often sat while players who were much older, stronger, and wiser than he banged and bruised in physical games.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating not to play, but it’s understandable because I’m 18 years old,” he said. “It was a lot of ups and downs during the season, but it was a pretty good season for me, just because I gained a lot of experience playing with older guys.”
“He was pretty limited with Maccabi in what he’s able to do,” said Doug Neustadt, Bender’s US-based agent. “It’s not like he could show his full array of skills. But I think, eventually, his basketball skills will come out.”
Bender averaged 5.5 points and 3 rebounds in just 14.5 minutes per game for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Super League play. Still, NBA teams were enchanted by his potential.
Week after week, executives would arrive in Israel and try to untangle the mystery of what Bender might become. They would watch him sit on a bench during a game, and then they would see one alluring moment that showed what might be possible.
Ofoegbu said Bender initially seemed nervous when the NBA decision-makers came to see him, but that dissipated.
“I think he took this year as a learning experience,” Ofoegbu said. “He watched a lot of the guys that were over him and he just stayed in the gym and kept working.
“I don’t think he was frustrated, but he took it as he had to keep working. He’s a real humble kid, but he’s one of those kids where he also knows he belongs. He has a quiet confidence.”
So what can Dragan Bender become? Fraschilla said the comparisons with Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis — who is taller, older, and a better shooter — are inevitable but unfair.
But the 18-year-old Bender — the youngest player in this draft — is a gifted passer, a good shooter, and an agile defender capable of switching onto smaller players. And those skills, meshed with an impossibly long frame, make him a tantalizing prospect.
“I think he’s going to be a good NBA player, definitely a starter someday,” Fraschilla said. “Predicting stardom right now is harder. I don’t think there’s a team in the first 10 picks that knows whether this kid is going to be a starter or a star.”
Fraschilla said that if Bender entered a gym with the top high school players in the United States, he would stand out because of his size, agility, skill, and athleticism. Of course, the NBA is not made up of high school seniors.
“When you draft him, you’re drafting a 7-1 piece of sculpture,” Fraschilla said. “It’s like a piece of clay. The team that drafts him has to be completely in alignment between the GM, coach, and assistant coaches that they’re going to develop this kid, mold him into whatever it might be.”
And that could be the conundrum facing the Celtics, who seem to be just a few moves away from joining the NBA’s upper class.
They might not want to wait several years to see what Bender can become, but if he is to become a sensation, it would be worth it.
Celtics executives traveled to Israel last month and saw Bender work out. They took him out to dinner, too, and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was impressed by the teenager’s knowledge of the game. On Tuesday, the Celtics will oversee the workout in Waltham on their terms, and they are hoping to gain some valuable intelligence.
“It’s tough to gauge until you see him in your system and on your team and how he’s able to match up against NBA athletes,” Ainge said. “I have great respect for the European game, but they don’t have the same kind of athletes.”
It is also true that the NBA doesn’t have many players who are quite like Bender, an agile 7-1 teenager capable of drilling 3-pointers. Bender says he can do “a little bit of everything” on the court, yet he is also among those wondering how it will all translate at the world’s highest level.
“It is a hard question,” Bender said, “because pretty much everything is new to me.”