Life’s circumstances have led to me living in the same area code as the Wisconsin Herd for the month of November. As you can imagine, I’ve taken full advantage of this unexpected opportunity to #HerdOut by being front and center for the first two home games. I also caught the condensed version of the revenge win over Windy City & Friday’s big comeback vs the Raptors 905 in its entirety.
The most important takeaway (as it relates to the Bucks) is that Dragan Bender is going to be a productive NBA player. Whenever that chance arrives we’ll be reading glowing exposees of his reclamation & lament filled tweets from fans wondering how he slipped through the cracks. He’s huge, nimble, fluid, smart and fully bought in. His veins are flowing with Bucks/Budenholzer DNA. That’s the the “dribble, pass, shoot” DNA emphasized over the last two seasons, not the “raw, long, unskilled athlete “DNA that Hammond loaded in tubes & took to Orlando with him. Defensively, he’s obviously paid close attention to the way Brook Lopez operates within Bud’s scheme. Bender stays at home and stays vertical. He’s done a masterful job keeping his hands high and straight, not getting out of position to gamble for blocks in the fashion of Christian Wood. He was vocal in communicating to his teammates & had a full grip on the Bucks funneling everything towards contested midrange jumpers instead of layups. His toughest matchup so far has been the jaw droppingly athletic Daniel Gafford. The explosiveness of Gafford level athletes pops so much differently in person. There were a few plays where Gafford was able to get up over/around Bender and a few more where Bender closed off the initial penetration only to be made to look silly by a Gafford slam after a drop off pass or put back, which is more on the Herd teammates for not helping out.
Offensively, he’s gotten more competitive and aggressive in every game he played. He’s been outstanding attacking the offensive glass and looks really fluid grabbing & going off defensive rebounds. He’s got a really pure, nice looking jumper that he’s not afraid to hoist over smaller defenders in a Brook- esque fashion. There was a moment where DJ Hogg had Bender wide open at the arc and hesitated too long before finally getting it to the big Croatian. Bender still splashed thee three and let Hogg know that he **** up, which I think is a good sign. He’s also been able to leverage his shot with some impressive drives off pump fakes for buckets. G-league refs are capable of being as bad as you’d think and he’s been getting absolutely clobbered at times & still been able to finish/stay aggressive.
One of my worries was that Bender would be “over it.” A former #4 pick with a rep for being soft & disinterested who reportedly flirted with ditching the NBA all together over the summer. He’s from a land of fresh seafood and seaside espresso sipping and spent his last four winters in Arizona. Would Bender really be humble enough aspire towards the best version of himself in the frozen hinterlands of Oshkosh? Yes. He seems to have a really good rapport with Chase Buford, staff and teammates. Bender had a big smile on his face as he dapped up a front row fan after helping lead a 17 point comeback. He laughed at the expression of dance put forth by the cheese curd loving timeout contestants. He looks (and plays) noticeably stronger than even when we first saw him at the early October scrimmage. There’s a palpable intelligence to him that gives me hope. I think he respects and appreciates the intelligence he sees in Bud & the staff Bud’s put together, the type of structure & attention to detail he hasn’t seen at the NBA level yet.
Before you accuse me of Croatian favoritism, know that I’ve never been a fan of Bender. I pretty much wrote him off after the 2017 Eurobasket, when he played soft & like he didn’t want to be there. It’s almost always a terrible sign when a Euro mails it in for their national team & I figured he was on his way to becoming a garbage man’s Bargnani. But Bender’s much smarter than Bargnani, and he’s becoming much tougher.
That’s it for now. Check back throughout the week of thoughts on the rest of the roster, coach Buford, notable individual opponents & Oshkosh in game entertainment.