High-Flying High Schooler Bender Jumps Right to NBA


Jonathan Bender is as gangly as a colt--a scant 200 pounds stretched out for 6-feet, 11-inches across matchstick legs and long, thin arms. His 18-year-old face still reflects small-town boyhood, soft, open, trusting.

And he's got that Southern habit of adding "ma'am" and "sir" to his yes's and no's and the quiet confidence of being the big man on campus.

Bender, fresh out of Picayune High School in Mississippi, was the No. 5 pick by Toronto in Wednesday's NBA draft.

Bender averaged 25 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots per game as a senior center at Picayune. But it was his performance in the March 25 McDonald's All-American Game that really caught the attention of scouts. Bender scored 31 points, breaking the record Michael Jordan set.

As a lottery pick, Bender can expect to make about $9 million for his first three seasons.

"It's always a concern when anyone gets a lot of money like that," said Thaddeus Fouchier, Bender's adviser and summer-league coach. "It's a concern if you win the lottery, but we've got a lot of good advisers around him."

Bender entered the draft at a time when more and more players are jumping from high school straight to the NBA. Kevin Garnett, drafted out of high school in 1995, ended up with a record $126 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The next year, Kobe Bryant was drafted out of high school and he now stars with the Los Angeles Lakers, labeled a possible successor to Michael Jordan as the league's most exciting player.

So, the future is bright for Bender, although he's got a lot of work to do--starting with that skinny body.

"It's just a matter of time before his body catches up with his talent," said Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, the coach who thought Bender would be playing for him before he decided to head to the NBA.

"I'm disappointed, of course, but I'm not resentful. Jonathan is so nice. He's a remarkable young man with a lot of promise and I look forward to seeing him realize it. But as good as he is as a player, he's better as a person."

Bender is not expected to be an instant star in the NBA, where he'll be playing against men from five to 20 years older, established players who have more muscle, mass and savvy.

He's projected as a forward, although he's not yet strong enough to be a power forward, and he's an accurate shooter with good range, especially for a big man.

"I don't think he's ready for the contact and the physical aspect of the league at this point," said Dick Van Arsdale, vice president of player personnel for the Phoenix Suns. "He hasn't developed the strength he needs yet. But he has all that natural ability and shoots so well. If a team has the time and money to make an investment for the future--Jonathan is it."

That investment looks better under the terms of the new NBA contract that gives teams an optional fourth year on first-round draft picks rather than the old rule of three years. Teams also have the right of first refusal in the fifth year, when Bender would be 23, young and no doubt wider and stronger.

Those who know him say his work ethic should help him as he strives to succeed as a professional.

"He has amazing dedication for someone so young," said Mackie Shillstone, clinical director for the LSU Center for Sports Performance and Wellness, where Bender began working out as a high school junior. "He is very, very hard working, very dedicated and very respectful."

And despite Bender's size, Shillstone said the NBA veterans who worked with the teen-ager couldn't contain him.

"Jonathan's balance and running ability was such that they couldn't get to him," Shillstone said. "I think he's going to find that same thing when he's in the league."

Bender gets much of his drive from his mother.

His father died when he was 13, so Willie Mae Bender raised four children, including a stepson, alone. She also worked at WalMart at night and attended college during the day, getting a bachelor's degree at age 44 as a community health educator.

"College was right for me," she said. "That was my choice. But I raised my children to know that they had choices and should make the right ones."

On his high school team, Bender was the biggest player and by far the best. He acknowledges that he carried the team and realizes that will soon change.

"I'm looking forward to not being the big star. I'm looking forward to what I can learn," he said.

While Bender interests many NBA teams because of his natural talent and positive attitude, his youth and need to develop make just as many wish he had decided to play at Mississippi State before moving to the pros.

"He has tremendous potential. He's a very talented young man," Van Arsdale said. "But he would have benefited tremendously from college, both as a person and a player."

All Bender is thinking about, however, is improving his body and game.

"People are going to test me," he said. "But I'm ready for it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World