World is Bender's oyster for dominant Croatia at U18 Euros
REGENSBURG (David Hein's Eye on the Future) - World, this is Dragan Bender. Dragan Bender, this is the world. Consider it your oyster.
May I speak in the name of the entire world basketball community in saying please use the excellent basketball gifts you have been given and continue to hone your skills with lots of hard work, never letting yourself be satisfied with where you are at.
Because we, the fans of the world, are already drunk on dreams of your greatness and want more.
Okay, that last bit may have been a bit too much, but you get the point.
Croatian star talent Dragan Bender has taken over the focus of the U18 European Championship. I'm not quite sure, but I think I saw a volunteer or two in Konya, Turkey in the stands asking scouts and talent observers if they were okay after they just sat there with the mouths open and heads shaking at what Bender was doing.
The 2.11m native of Capljina, Bosnia and Herzegovina is second in scoring for Croatia - and 12th overall in the tournament at 14.7 points per game. He leads his team, is second in the competition in both rebounds (11.3) and assists (4.7) and third in blocks (2.2).
Okay, this is a guy we need to watch out for.
Dragan Bender is also the younger brother of 1995-born Ivan Bender and doesn't turn 17 years old (!!!) until November 17.
That's right, a 16-year-old is demolishing the U18 European Championship. Would you like a bit of evidence? How about 34 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks against Lithuania? Then there was the Latvia game in which he came up an assist short of a triple-double as he collected 21 points, 17 rebounds, nine assists as well as three blocks and two assists.
To put that performance - against a Quarter-Final team - in perspective, the last triple-double at the U18 European Championship came 10 years ago, on July 11 2004, when Lithuanian Martynas Andriuskevicius scored 18 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked 10 shots against Israel.
Did I mention Bender is only 16 years old?
And he will be moving to Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv after the summer for the start of a four-year contract with the Turkish Airlines Euroleague champions that also includes three years of options.
Even though scouts and some observers knew of Bender before the tournament, the forward is the biggest story of the U18 Euros. But he's not the only story.
Bender is big part of the dominance of Croatia, who are the only undefeated team in Turkey - with an average winning margin of 22.8 points.
As stated in last week's column, Croatia have an embarrassment of riches with the likes of Marko Arapovic, Lovro Mazalin, Luka Bozic, Nik Slavica and Ante Zicic.
The scary part is that Bender, Mazalin, Slavica and Zicic are all 1997-born, meaning they could be playing for Croatia this summer at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship - and be a podium contender - if they hadn't failed in their qualifying at the 2013 U16 European Championship, where they placed sixth.
Croatia will take on Spain in the U18 European Championship Quarter-Finals after both of the generations of players on this Croatian team lost in the quarters of the U16 Euros in the past two summers. So, this group of Croatians will be looking to finally take the next step.
Croatia will then take on the winner between tournament hosts Turkey and Latvia. Uber-talented Turkey have struggled against physical teams - losing to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia - so a less-talented Latvian team may decide to really battle the Turks.
The other quarters see Italy face Greece and Serbia playing against Lithuania.
Italy have a dominant backcourt in Federico Mussini and Diego Flaccadori, who have accounted for 58 percent of the team's points as well as 25 percent of their assists, 40 percent of their steals and 53 percent of their fouls drawn.
Greece, meanwhile, feature the dynamic duo of Vasileios Charalampopoulos and Dimitrios Stamatis.
A balanced Serbia team - spearheaded by captain Stefan Lararevic - head into the quarters as the other top seed from the Second Round opposite Croatia. Serbia will face Lithuania, whose clear leader is Domantas Sabonis.
There hasn't been a U18 repeat champion since Yugoslavia in 1986 and 1988, so Turkey will have history against them.
Latvia and Italy are the only two Quarter-Final teams that haven't won a U18 title since 2008 with each of the other six taking one crown.
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