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17 Dragan Bender (CRO)

Bender: ''What I like about the national team is that you always learn and get better''

PHOENIX (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers) - Dragan Bender got his first taste of international basketball with the senior team this past summer and showed flashes of being one of his country's next great players.

Croatia, among the pre-tournament favorites at FIBA EuroBasket 2017 following their strong showing at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Turin and Quarter-Final appearance at the Rio de Janeiro Games, came up well short of expectations in Turkey with Russia knocking them out in the Round of 16.

The national team having suffered a 68-61 defeat at the Netherlands and an 80-64 home drubbing by Italy in their first two FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers and next have February games against Romania and the Netherlands. Croatia will be looking for the 20-year-old Bender, who will have NBA commitments and be unavailable for the next two games, to help them on June 28 at Italy and July 1 at Romania. Bender has spoken to FIBA.basketball.

Is your aim to play for Croatia in June, July and, if the national team progresses to the Second Round of the World Cup Qualifiers, in September?
For sure, definitely. I'm always excited to play for my country. I have been doing so since I was 14 years old so that is something I would definitely want to do, even next summer and in the future. Playing for the national team is always something that I look forward to.

Was it a big adjustment having to play for Croatia's senior team this past summer?
Yes, it was definitely. I was new to the group of players and coming from the NBA, you need a bit of time to get readjusted to the FIBA game. The group helped me a lot, and that was great to receive help and support from the entire team and staff.

Bender played at FIBA EuroBasket 2017

Croatia had had such a great 2016 and then things didn't go according to plan at the EuroBasket. What happened in the 101-78 defeat to Russia in the Round of 16?
We didn't have a good day at all. Our defense wasn't there, especially in the second half and they had a great game overall. They shot very well from the 3-point line and like I said, our defense wasn’t good in the second half and that is why we lost this one.

Bojan Bogdanovic was among those who had predicted big things for Croatia last summer.
It was a disappointment not to win a medal, that's for sure. We had high hopes for this summer and to lose like this wasn't the best way to go out of a tournament. Now our minds are focused on the next competitions and we're excited to build a great team and fight for medals and titles in the next couple of years. We were missing a couple of young players last summer, and we're going to try to have them for the next competitions. We have all the ingredients to build a very competitive and successful team in the future.

It wasn't all bad, was it? You personally had 10 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in the 107-69 victory over the Czech Republic in the Group Phase.
It (EuroBasket experience) was good, I think. Playing for the national team is so great, and you forget about yourself as you are part of a group that represents a country. I had some good moments on the court and what I like about the national team is that you always learn and get better. You can be the best player somewhere, but you also can't be the best in the national team. Playing for your country is about pride. I tried to help my country do something great this summer as we've been doing pretty well for most of the time in the last 20 years. We fell short this summer, we had ambition, but we had a bad performance during that game against Russia.

Has it helped you become a better player?
Playing at FIBA level was very nice and competing in a different kind of basketball than what I was doing with the Suns was a great learning experience. I liked competing against guys, teams and in a different way of basketball from the one in the NBA. You learn a lot by playing at different kinds of basketball. It helps me be a better player.

People didn't expect Slovenia to go unbeaten and win the EuroBasket. Have they set an example, perhaps, for Croatia to follow?
Yes, for sure. They came with a team that had great chemistry and very good players. Everybody knew their role very well, and they showed that you could win by playing well and having solid teamwork. The Slovenian example of success is very interesting, and we're also looking forward to reaching the same success in the next competitions.