By Max Marcilla
A diet to lose weight, a new position and a role change. That’s what the summer featured for Maryland basketball’s Ivan Bender.
Bender’s ability to adapt can be attributed to one crucial constant: his smarts.
“He’s probably the smartest player I’ve ever been around and the stuff he does on the court is just amazing,” said freshman center Bruno Fernando. “He just keeps surprising me every day at practice.”
Fernando is one of a few players Bender has impacted. Terps love playing with the 6-foot-9 Bosnia and Herzegovina native — and not just his fellow big men.
“He’s really smart. You can see the way he passes the ball,” sophomore guard Kevin Huerter said. “Defensively, he’s really good at remembering other team’s plays. He’s always talking out there when he’s on the court for scouting reports and stuff like that.”
Last season, Bender was asked to play minutes at center often. His teammate and fellow foreign-born Terp Michal Cekovsky had a difficult season battling injuries, forcing Bender into action at center when Damonte Dodd needed a breather. There were also five games — including Maryland’s first two Big Ten matchups — during which Bender started at center.
His versatile role as a backup center and occasional starter may not exist anymore since Fernando and graduate transfer Sean Obi joined the program. Now, Bender can focus more on playing the power forward position — the “four” — his natural spot.
“I was playing more perimeter and four back in my country before I came here, before I got injured,” Bender said. “Now it’s really great because I feel much better at the four than [at center].”
Besides simply gaining a new duo of capable big men, head coach Mark Turgeon believes Bender’s 25-pound weight loss is an important reason for his ability to switch positions.
“He’s changed his body, he’s a better athlete, he’s a little faster,” Turgeon said. “I think he’s more confident as a player. He’s just got such a great feel. Will he score more? I don’t know that yet. Is he looking to score more? Yes.”
The lighter, quicker Bender has worked on expanding his skills on the perimeter in practice. Although he has not attempted a three-point shot in any of his 45 career games at Maryland, the forward has been hoisting up deep balls in practice — and would be comfortable taking it under the bright lights.
“If I’m playing the four and our spacing is great and I’m open I’ll take it,” he said. “But I’m not going to force it.”
The positivity of Bender’s presence on the court has certainly cemented his spot in the rotation, regardless of whether or not the long ball becomes a part of his arsenal.
“He’s a great communicator, he definitely teaches you a lot about the game,” Fernando said. “He helps me, even in the plays, during practice, he’s just going to help me, tell me what I’m supposed to do because obviously he’s been doing the same stuff for years now.”
While perfecting the craft of a three-point shot can be achieved through endless repetition and hours in the gym, Bender’s ability to see the court, pass the ball and communicate on defense comes naturally.
“I think a lot of people are just born with [basketball smarts],” Huerter said. “You’re gifted with the ability to pass the ball and see the court and be smart like that, so I think a lot of that is just the way [Bender] plays.”