Freshman center Bol Bol has thrown his name in to enter the 2019 NBA Draft. How does he project into the NBA, and how does he fit with the Philadelphia 76ers?
Fun Fact: Spellcheck hates the name Bol Bol.
By necessity, this write-up needs to take a different form from those that came before it. That is because Bol Bol the actual player and Bol Bol the player that appears on most scouting reports have just about nothing in common, and because addressing the concerns that most have about Bol Bol requires a dive into theory rather than just talking about his strengths and weaknesses.
Bol Bol is an elite prospect that deserves to be talked about in the same breath as Zion. Let’s explore why.
Bol Bol the College Player
The first thing that needs to be discussed is Oregon’s team. It didn’t fit, their offense made no sense, their defense made no sense, they were just a total mess in every way, at least early in the season when Bol was playing. On offense, guys would run to the same spot, there was a lot of aimless passing, and there was plenty of off-ball movement but none of it had any purposes. On defense, I could legitimately not tell you their defensive principles even after watching a full game. In theory, it was a 1-2-2 full court press that morphed into a 2-3 zone. In practice, it was a 3-2 ¾ court press that morphed into *flails arms wildly*. I have no idea. It didn’t follow typical 2-3 zone principles. Nobody seemed to have any idea what they were supposed to be doing. It made no sense.
On top of that, none of Oregon’s pieces really fit together. Louis King missed most of the games Bol played and came off the bench in the two games they played together. Payton Pritchard and the rest of the guards struggled to enter the ball to him or shoot accurately from the perimeter. Kenny Wooten and Paul White wanted to occupy the same places as him on both ends of the floor. None of Oregon’s perimeter defenders could stop dribble penetration consistently.
Bol played 9 games. The Ducks were 6-3 in those games. In all three losses, the Ducks were positive with Bol on the floor. In fact, in their 4 point loss to Houston, the Ducks were massively positive on the floor in Bol’s 36 minutes, and they still managed to lose. Shades of…*flashback*…*fetal position*…
Okay, let’s not talk about that. The point is, Oregon was always a positive team when Bol was on the floor, even though they often surrounded him with 3 or 4 guys who couldn’t shoot and at least one and sometimes two other guys who wanted to play in the post. As a result, Bol often operated at the free throw line or behind the arc except when attacking offensive rebounds. This was not due to lack of desire to attack inside, as is sometimes noted. Rather, he was operating in the only areas that were open for him to operate in.
Bol suffered what was eventually diagnosed as a navicular fracture that ended his season after just 9 games. The last time a player played so little and was drafted highly was Kyrie Irving. That worked out pretty well. Darius Garland is projected to be a top 8 draft pick this year after suffering a meniscus injury after just 4 games this season, so it really should not a death knell to draft stock.
Why is Bol so low? Judging by the scouting reports, a mixture of short-sightedness and just plain not watching him.
He is injury prone
Okay, this one needs to be addressed from a few angles.
- His injury was a navicular fracture. Sixers fans may be familiar with it – it is the same injury suffered by Joel Embiid. Who else suffered navicular fractures? Well, Michael Jordan in 1985, for one. He turned out pretty good and missed just one game in the five seasons after the injury. Marc Gasol in 2016. He came back just fine. Zydrunas Ilgauskas played for another decade after his navicular fracture. Others who came back include Brendan Haywood, who was already at the end of his career before it, and Quincy Pondexter, who wasn’t good before or after it. The only real cautionary tale is Yao Ming, who couldn’t recover in part due to his massive feet and in part due to his massive weight.
Basically, unless Bol puts on 100 pounds and grows 5 inches from where he is now, which he won’t, the long term prognosis for the injury is fantastic (Embiid and Ilgauskas are far better physical comps for this purpose). The short term prognosis is dicey – whether he can play in 2019-2020 is probably still up in the air – some guys recovered quickly and others didn’t. But I don’t think you worry about 2019-2020 either way. Much like the Sixers did with Embiid, special attention needs to be given to his running, jumping, and landing mechanics, but this is neither a career ending nor a recurring injury. Not a single player who suffered it previously had a recurrence of it.
- Centers are injury prone. That’s just a fact of being a massive individual and playing a physically demanding sport. Only nine centers have started 210 games or more over the past three seasons. If you set the criteria to 6000 minutes played, it’s 11 centers. It is hard to find centers who have played 70+ games in more than 2 of the past 4 seasons. Body type doesn’t matter. Weight doesn’t matter. It’s just the reality of being a big dude playing a demanding position with a ton of contact. There is no evidence that Bol will be more or less injury prone than other centers. The fact that he fractured his foot in his college season is unfortunate, but really has no bearing on his future (see point 1). He will probably miss time, but every center does. Why it is held against him but not any other centers is just odd. Way too much stock is being put in what is essentially an extremely rare, extremely fluky injury that practically never recurs.
- Anybody can get injured. Jabari Parker had no injury history and then tore his ACL twice. Lonzo Ball’s only known injury was a minor hamstring strain, and he hasn’t been able to stay on the court. Kristaps Porzingis had no previous history, then suffered multiple minor injuries and tore his ACL. Victor Oladipo had no injury history, and now, just as he’s hitting his prime, he’s suffering from a degenerative knee injury and a ruptured quad tendon. While past injury history is a good indicator for future injuries, playing basketball leads to injuries. Absent a truly terrifying injury history such as Jontay Porter, there’s really no way to identify who is an injury risk. They all are.
And if past injuries are such a big deal, why no concern over Zion? Zion suffered injuries to his knee, foot, and thumb in high school and another knee injury in college. None of them were major, but given his weight and constant minor injuries, it has to be a concern. Injuries are a concern for everybody.
- Tying the previous two points together, according to one peer-reviewed study published a few years ago, there is actually no correlation between height and injuries, weight and injuries, or any other physical measurement and injuries. Depending on what methodology you use, that may change slightly, but overall, there is at least some peer-reviewed research out there that basically says all basketball players are relatively injury prone and that centers only seem injured more because we pay more attention to center injuries. It is always important to review conventionally accepted wisdom. It is quite possible that the fear that players with certain body types are more injury prone than other players is nothing more than memory bias. Just something to keep in mind.
- Ultimately, people worry about injuries too much, because when it comes down to it, everybody would rather have an injury prone elite player than a healthy good player. As a simple example, let’s take a merely good center who has remained remarkably healthy – Andre Drummond. Would you rather have Drummond or Embiid? Drummond or Anthony Davis? If your answer isn’t Drummond to both of those, you care more about player quality than player health, as you should. 82 games of a good player will always be far less valuable than having an elite player. Health is a tiebreaker among equally skilled players perhaps, but that’s all. Elite talent rules the NBA. Even if it misses a bunch of games.
He can’t play defense/doesn’t give effort
I have no idea where this started, but I highly recommend that anybody who believes this to go back and watch his games against Syracuse and Houston at the very least. The full games. Let me take a line from The Ringer’s Draft Guide:
“Poor effort plagues his defense: He fails to contest shots, help, communicate, and box out for rebounds. You won’t find him hustling back on defense.”
I want to address each of these individually. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not watch every single play from every single game. Maybe he was lazy in the early season blowouts of Portland State and Eastern Washington, but what use is tape against completely overmatched competition? I stuck mainly to the tapes of him against Syracuse, Houston, and Iowa, though I did at least glance at other games. I just found them to be far less relevant because of the massive talent gap.
“He fails to contest shots, help”
I don’t know that I saw a single play where he failed to contest the shot of a man he was guarding or failed to help against penetration he was responsible to help on. Were there a few plays where there were miscommunications? Absolutely, but again, the defensive scheme made no sense and nobody knew what their role was, and that was glaringly obvious. The amount of times that Bol was asked to play on the perimeter was far more than you would ever expect of a center, because Wooten also wanted to play center and would often kick Bol out. But I also want to highlight one play in particular, one that won’t make highlight reels but which shows just how good a defender Bol is in this regard (and how stupid this system was):
Bol starts at the free throw line, is responsible for closing out and contesting one corner, returns to the edge of the paint, and then is responsible for closing out and contesting in the opposite corner. It cannot be overstated how ridiculous this system is. The middle man of the 2-3 zone is never responsible for closing out in the corners, but this system just asked him to do it as a matter of course. I think many of the examples of Bol’s “bad” defense were just examples of this system’s obvious fail points (especially because the guards could not stop dribble penetration either).
But Bol executes it perfectly. He recognizes the open man, closes, returns back to center, recognizes the open man, closes, keeps his balance, and forces the driver into the help defender. Does that look like a man who fails to contest shots or help? Of course not. In the Syracuse game alone, he blocked two jump shots, a floater, and a layup. He was everywhere. This is one of those times where I wonder what games the draft analysts watched, because in these games, I couldn’t find a single instance of failing to contest or help when he was able to.
I saw lots of communication by Oregon’s defense, and still nobody had any idea what to do. This included when Bol was off the floor. I didn’t see a failure to communicate, I did see a team-wide failure to understand the defensive principles…if there were any. Again, play stupid schemes, win stupid prizes. Why this gets blamed on Bol, I have no idea. It shouldn’t be. He was the lynchpin to actually making this screwiness work.
“Box out for rebounds”
This may be the strangest criticism of all. I specifically looked for this on every single field goal and free throw attempt where Bol was at the basket, and he looked for a man to box out on every single one. I literally couldn’t show you a single shot of him failing to box out. He boxed out and boxed out hard. I literally have no idea what this is about. This is how bad draft analysis is done. Somebody says something egregious like this, nobody goes back and checks because it requires access to full game tape and a lot of time, and so it becomes accepted. This is just a complete fabrication, and it should be recognized as such.
“You won’t find him hustling back on defense.”
I looked for this too and never saw it once, not after missed shots, not after blatant fouls that weren’t called, never. Again, I have no idea where this comes from, but it has no basis in reality and should be recognized as such.
To show what all of these concerns look like on tape, here are plenty of examples by supposed elite defender De’Andre Hunter from the last two games of Virginia’s NCAA Tournament run: De’Andre Hunter Defense and Rebounding. I legitimately cannot do anything similar for Bol. There just aren’t any massive glaring examples. If these concerns were legitimate, I should be able to make a lowlight reel for Bol like I can for Hunter. I can’t. These types of plays just don’t exist on his tape.
Bol’s real defensive qualities
First, he is tall and long and nobody can take that from him. He can contest and alter shots from a great distance merely by getting his arms up in the air. There were times when his arms were too far forward and not far enough up, but his coaches and teammates were quick to correct him. Impressively, Bol rarely fouled, an extremely impressive feat for a guy who blocked as many shots as he did. That is a great sign for his future. This length comes in handy in all facets of his game. At the rim, he generally does a good job staying vertical and just making it impossible to attack the rim with him there. On the perimeter, he gets in a nice athletic crouch with his arms active and can get his arm up quick in response to shots:
There has been a lot of concern about his ability to defend on the perimeter, but he showed plenty of ability to so, and since when have we started grading centers on their ability to guard guards beyond the three point line anyway? When stuck out there, he shows tremendous balance, good footwork, and a good understanding of how to simply use his size and length to either bother the shot or drive or guide the man to his help. He’s not going to be a guard out there, but he’s not going to be Boban either. He will be able to easily guard pick-and-poppers, and he is an absolutely tremendous trapper due to his quickness and long arms. He swallowed up guys who picked up their dribble consistently.
In the post, yes, he absolutely needs to add some strength. That being said, even at the weight he played at, he was quite adept at defending the post. Why? Because even when he was pushed around, he neutralized the threat with his absurdly long arms. It is an issue that is far overblown. A 6’10” center needs to be strong and keep his man further away from the basket. Bol can just stick his arms up. You can’t teach height.
Ultimately, the reason Bol’s defense is knocked is a combination of just completely false things being thrown around without ever being checked and the fact that Bol isn’t a traditional bully center. Neither of those things matter in reality. Bol is an excellent defender who should only get better given time to mature physically and mentally and given a scheme that makes a lick of sense.
Poor work ethic/conditioning/lack of interest
This has been reported in a few different ways, but it boils down to something like Bol is not a hard worker and may not be interested in or love basketball or something. As far as what happens in practice goes, I do not know him. I did not attend Oregon’s practices. I think that goes for most people. I can’t give an opinion on it. I never read too much into things like that, and I advise that you don’t either. 18-19 year olds can be moody sometimes. It happens.
As far as a lack of conditioning goes, he may not have been in prime game shape on day one, but he played over 30 minutes in 5 of his last 6 games and the 6th was a blowout where the starters didn’t play the whole game. As noted earlier, he played 36 minutes in a gargantuan carry effort against Houston. Big dudes typically play 30 minutes. I didn’t see any signs of lack of conditioning in the tapes I watched. No idea where this one comes from, but it’s not reflected anywhere on tape.
This concern, at this time, is completely legitimate, and I don’t think anybody would argue it. However…
Every college center ever has lacked NBA strength. It’s another one of those things that is held against him that doesn’t make sense to hold against only him. Bol will struggle against grown men at an age when he can’t legally drink. Given normal maturity and a strength and conditioning program, there is no reason to believe he won’t develop the necessary bulk and strength, just like those centers that came before him. Is he a little further away than most centers? Yeah. Does that mean it may take him a little longer to get where he needs to go? Maybe. Does it mean he won’t get there within a few years? Absolutely not.
Bol reportedly played this season at around 235 pounds. He weighed in at 208 at the combine after not playing or doing training for months. If he can get back to his playing weight, his measurements (height/weight/wingspan) will be almost identical to Rudy Gobert. Nobody is saying that Gobert is too small or weak to defend the post. Gobert was 22 when he blossomed into the elite defender he is today. Give Bol that time to develop that same weight, strength, and muscle mass.
This is an extremely short-sighted concern and loses track of the fact that every center coming out of college needs to get that grown man strength, and NBA teams have programs designed to develop just that.
His offense is the best in the draft
For whatever reason, this key point is severely overlooked. Bol Bol is an absolutely incredible offensive player. He is far superior to RJ Barrett as a scorer. He has a far more varied game than Zion Williamson. Maybe you can argue Ja Morant over him, it’s tough to compare the two. But there is literally nothing Bol can’t do on offense.
Get him the ball close to the basket? He has a variety of hook shots, floaters, and step moves to get the ball in the hoop. Get him the ball at the elbow or line? He can pass the ball out, he can drive to the hoop, he can square up; he has every skill in his arsenal. He has a silky smooth turnaround jumper and even showed off a step back three. He can shoot off the bounce or catch-and-shoot. He even ran the fast break a few times and showed he could bring the ball up the court as long as he wasn’t directly pressured. His assists are misleadingly low, an unfortunate reality of playing with a bunch of poor shooters. There were a lot of assists that clanged off the rim.
I’m not sure why his offense is never discussed in draft conversations. Even against an elite defensive team like Houston, playing with no spacing and guards who couldn’t get him the ball, he scored 23 points on 14 shots with just one turnover. He is the centerpiece of an offense, a guy who can operate from the post, the elbow, or the perimeter, facing up or back to the basket, and can create his own offense and has shown a distinct willingness to create for others.
Even if you think Bol is a poor defender, which, as covered above, he is not, his offense projects to be truly elite, the type of offense that gets you taken top 3 regardless of your defensive prowess. Why that part is glossed over so much is just strange. Deandre Ayton and Karl Towns are just two recent examples of #1 overall centers who couldn’t play much defense but were so good on offense it didn’t matter. That should apply to Bol.
Where can we expect Bol Bol to go in the 2019 NBA Draft?
The Athletic: 32
It is stated everywhere that Bol has the widest range of any player in this draft. He could go as high as the top 10 and as low as the second round. As far as I am aware, he has not been doing workouts, and I do not know which teams have his medicals. These factors could certainly be contributing to his fluctuating stock.
The biggest problem with NBA Draft analysis is the hive mind effect. One or two analysts say something, it starts getting repeated, nobody ever checks it, and it becomes accepted as fact. Then, when somebody challenges it, they are told they are wrong because after all, everybody else says it so it must be true. This is a terrible way to do draft analysis.
The second biggest problem with NBA Draft analysis is losing track of what matters. It’s very easy to get fixated on things of little relevance and lose track of what is actually relevant. Bol may not have tried super hard against weak opponents – I didn’t even bother to go back and check, so I can neither confirm nor deny. Who cares? Bol may not be ready to be an NBA contributor on day one. Who cares? Bol was injured this year. Once you confirm that the injury carries no long term prognosis…Who cares? Bol’s consensus ranking is emblematic of all the flaws in the draft analysis process.
I leave you with this final thought:
“Had trouble staying on the floor … Questionable durability … Lacks both offensive and defensive awareness … Defensively, he frequently focuses too much on the ball and loses track of his man … Was at times pushed off the block by bigger centers … Seems to get frustrated when not heavily involved in the offense or not making his shots. At those times, his play appears to be a bit lackadaisical …”
That’s not Bol Bol’s draft profile. That’s Joel Embiid’s. Embiid went 2 spots too low, despite missing all of his first two seasons and more than half of his third and despite still having some (many?) of those weaknesses. Because when you lose sight of what’s relevant, you miss the giant athletic skilled dude standing right in front of you.
The only question now is how many spots too low Bol goes.
Bol Bol’s Fit with the 76ers
This is an interesting one. There’s the obvious fit, which is “being one of the few men on Earth who can reasonably approximate Joel Embiid, making him the perfect backup.” I think a much more interesting fit is as a PF next to Embiid. He projects to be a good or better shooter from beyond the arc. He showed enough ability to defend on the perimeter that I think he can guard most PFs at the next level. It may even be his natural position, which is weird, but hey, the Sixers have a 6’10″ PG, what’s a little 7’2″ PF to go with it? I won’t be surprised if that’s where he ends up at the next level.
Ultimately, if he comes anywhere into a range the Sixers can trade up to, they should trade up and figure it out later. I know a lot of fans don’t like that mantra, but it remains as true now as it did when the orchard was planted: take the best player available and worry about the rest later.
If after reading this your Bolner lasts over four hours, please seek immediate medical attention.
How do you feel about Bol Bol on the Sixers? Let us know by leaving a comment below or reaching out on Twitter!