Dragan Bender Talks Rookie Year, Kristaps Porzingis Parallels

The reality is starting to sink in for Dragan Bender.

The 18-year-old has been on a whirlwind ride this year, beginning in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv before transitioning stateside for the run-up to the NBA Draft and finally to Phoenix after the Suns called his name with the fourth overall pick.

In New York earlier this month for the 2016 Panini NBA Rookie Photo Shoot, Bender had a chance to reflect on the big changes in his life when he sat down with USA TODAY’s Larry Berger.

“When you start to play basketball, you always dream about that moment when you become a part of the NBA organization,” Bender said of his draft night. “And for me to do that and have my friends and family there, I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

Bender’s selection marked the second consecutive year a sharp-shooting international big man went fourth in the draft. In 2015, the New York Knicks took Kristaps Porzingis, who went on to earn All-Rookie First Team honors after he averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

Naturally, many in the media have likened Bender to Porzingis, who was also a teenager at the time of his drafting.

“There are some similarities,” Bender said. “We are both European guys, 7-footers coming from overseas to the NBA. And we both can shoot the ball and move well for the position.

“It’s great that people compare you to a guy like him, but I’m just trying to be myself on the court.”

Although Bender was the youngest player taken in this year’s draft, he is far from the most inexperienced. The forward believes his time practicing and playing with one of the most successful club in Europe will go a long way in easing his transition to the NBA.

“It definitely helps me a lot. The first year I was adjusting myself as a foreigner in a different country playing outside of Croatia with different guys,” Bender said. “This last season we had some trouble, you know, but all this pressure around the club and everything helped me for this move from Europe to the states.”

As for Bender’s goals for his first campaign with the Suns, the young Croatian kept things simple.

“Just to go through the rookie season and gain some experience with playing with these guys on the same level and being competitive,” Bender said. “The rookie season is hard for everybody, but you just need to adjust yourself as quickly as you can.”

You can watch the full interview in the tweet below and buy single-game tickets to see him compete against the NBA's best here.