Physically Phenomenal: The Far-Reaching Talents of Bol Bol
Things were different on November 16th, 1999. The NBA was still in the early steps of the post-Jordan era. Mambo #5 was the most popular song in America. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days was soaring to unseen cinematic heights. It was also the day that Bol Bol was born in the South Sudan to his legendary father, Manute.
Bol is a mild-natured, 7-foot-2 and 235-pound center with soft hands and a gracefulness that surprises everyone who watches him. He first came onto our radar in 2012, when a mixtape of a paper thin 6’5” seventh grader that could shoot threes and handle the ball went viral. A few years later, coming off a truncated single year of college ball at Oregon, he enters the NBA Draft. That means we need to talk about his tall ass.
Everybody knows about Bol’s famous dad — the legendary and universally beloved Manute Bol — but that height was not unusual. Bol Bol’s grandmother (Manute’s mother) was 6-foot-10, his grandfather was 6-8 and his aunt was also 6-8. Supposedly, his great-great grandfather was 7-foot-10. SEVEN FEET, TEN INCHES.
Just watching on TV, it can be hard to get a grasp for just how large and overwhelmingly gifted NBA players are. We see their size and speed in relation to one another and not next to your average person, where they’d stick out. This leads people to say things like ‘I could score on Kyle Korver!’ or ‘why aren’t they stopping that seven footer from shooting every single time?!’ We can lack perspective, and understandably this can annoy NBA players.
Even among supremely large, gifted athletes, Bol Bol’s spectacular frame jumps off the screen. He’s very thin, and he’s got a wingspan of 7’8” and a standing reach of 9’7”.
Going back to 2001, in the recorded history of the NBA Combine, there have only been a handful of players to have these kinds of measurements and still play significant minutes in the league. As of the time I’m writing this, he’s yet to be officially measured, but among these physical rarities, Bol is likely the most offensively skilled, but near the bottom in strength and explosiveness. His feet are nimble, and he doesn’t plod or or lack timing or touch, but I wouldn’t classify him as exceptionally agile or explosive, laterally or vertically.
As we said, Bol is very skilled for his size and build. To see a 7’2” have that kind of physical fluidity and comfort handling, passing and shooting the ball — it’s amazing to watch.
Bol rarely looks clumsy, which in and of itself is a remarkable thing. I’ve seen him, in traffic, bend over and pick up a loose ball and dribble in the open court, and throw a bounce pass on a dime to a teammate. I’ve seen him shot fake beyond the arc, quickly reset his feet and bury a three. I’ve seen him shake-and-bake a defender on the perimeter and get all the way to the rim for a dunk. These are the moments where you’re tantalized by what he could become.
This past season, at Oregon, Bol attempted 25 threes and knocked down 13 of them, for a clip of 52%. Nearly all of those were catch-and-shoot. He does seem to lean forward a bit and hold the ball out in front of his chest just before he goes into his shot pocket, that does give smaller defenders the chance to get a hand on the ball before he can let it fly.
Bol’s touch is displayed in other areas, too. He has fantastic hands and reach on the offensive glass, he’s comfortable finishing with touch in the middle of the floor with floaters and runners (a truly unstoppable shot when he gets in position to take it), and he seems relatively comfortable doing these things on the move.
Bol’s also an adept passer out of the high and low post, although there are some caveats that we’ll have to talk about. With his back to the basket, he’s accustomed to hitting off-ball cutters in his vicinity, and he can deliver those passes in a variety of ways. When he maintains position, he has good but inconsistent playmaking instincts.
If he can get to his spots, his glimmers of potential are jaw-dropping. He’s one of those players that will look fantastic in workouts and have executives leaning over and whispering ‘holy shit’ to the person standing next to them.
OUTSTANDING GIFTS, ONGOING QUESTIONS
Bol’s incredible physical qualities are a double-edged sword. They set him up to both succeed and fail, creating a neutral and sometimes negative effect that I worry could lower his ceiling.
Defensively, in college Bol rarely made what we call “out of area” plays. This might be a result of Dana Altman keeping Bol near the rim, in zone for a lot of his nine game sample size at Oregon. In the NBA, that won’t continue. If you’re within reach, his hands are quick and coordinated enough to block several shots in a row, but his appetite for destruction around the rim, otherwise, can be lacking.
So what gives a player the ability to make out of area plays? I would argue that it’s four things:
1) MOTOR. Does a player have the inherent fire-in-the-belly, the sheer ability to tirelessly grind during a possession, to pursue a play that might not technically be their responsibility?
Bol can seem disengaged and unmotivated to really fly around and mix it up when it comes to weakside contests or incoming actions at the rim.
2) VEHICLE. This one is self explanatory. If you’re big and athletic, you cover more ground.
Although he’s huge, coordinated and fluid, I wouldn’t classify say that in space Bol changes directions in an overly impressive way. He’s also fairly easily taken out of plays because of his lack of strength.
3) AWARENESS. What’s going on around you? Which of your teammates is getting screened? What does a particular player like to do? How long can you focus on these types of questions and stay on top of them without making a mistake?
This is an area where Bol could and probably will improve as he matures.
4) PRIDE. The best defenders in the world would chew your arms off and beat you to death with them (hyperbole obviously, maybe) if they thought it meant they’d get a stop. Do you give a shit? Is it embarrassing when someone scores on you?
Does Bol have that in him? I lean towards no, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t grow here, either. Just my opinion, but guys typically are born with this quality.
The best defensive bigs in the NBA check all of these boxes, at least a lot of the time. I’m not saying Bol whiffs on all four, but a majority of the time he only for sure checks… one of them? That is, he’s big, all the time.
It’s a question on the glass, too. During Bol’s availability, Oregon played three teams that I would consider high-major competition, and his effectiveness as a defensive rebounder cut nearly in half when he was playing against better competition. Again, a small sample, but something to think about.
On offense, Bol’s approach and build make him limited as a screener. His technique can and should improve, but his slender frame is a minor inconvenience for the on-ball defenders, and that impact trickles down. This makes it difficult for him to be a productive pick-and-roll partner and often blows up the play before it can take place. That might be why I saw Oregon guards frequently rejecting his screens.
Much like Bamba, his slight frame makes him easily compromised around the rim when he attempts to make any kind of a move. Bol is very often leaning away from the basket or being forced to take extremely challenged angles when he’s attempting to score. His length helps him work with those angles, but it’s only going to get more difficult. With his back to the basket, he almost always depends on the chicken wing with his left arm to create separation. He’s prone to making his mind up immediately about what he wants to do and forcing that idea, even if it yields ugly results.
I also worry that Bol’s charming ability to handle the ball will struggle to be applicable. Since his perimeter shot is easily contested, I wonder if it won’t be a big deal to put smaller, agile players on him and just crowd him and make him a driver. Bol will have to work on getting that shot up higher and sharpening that offensive repertoire so that he can attack those physical advantages with some consistency, as the competition improves.
Precedent doesn’t always predict the future, but it typically can give us a pretty good idea. It could help us predict whether Bol is a specialized tool that you use in spurts, or if he’s a load-bearing structure that you can build around.
Of the players in the NBA over seven feet tall, only 21 of them logged over 20 minutes of action a game. Of those 21 players, only eight of them were under 250 pounds.
The list of players over seven feet tall that averaged over thirty minutes per game is even shorter, and it’s a list that I’m not entirely sure that Bol Bol is poised to be a part of, for a number of reasons.
Rudy Gobert, the first guy, is a defensive player of the year and twice All-Defensive team player, despite what his detractors might have you believe. We’ve seen eye-popping instances of Bol protecting the rim, but can that become a calling card for him?
Karl Anthony-Towns, Lauri Markkanen and Kristaps Porzingis are the three others, and as I’m sure you’re well aware: each of those guys is historically talented on the offensive end at their position. I’m not convinced that Bol has the level of build, offensive feel, grit or consistency to join that group. He seems noticeably milder than those guys in personality.
I present these four players to give an idea of how difficult it is to be Bol’s size and weight and remain a heavy contributor for a competitive team in today’s NBA. At the very least, high-contribution NBA players with weaknesses have to offer some kind of a significant tradeoff. It’s simple math. In my opinion, Bol’s best chance at being a major plus as an NBA player is as a defensive anchor. The variables that will dictate whether or not that happens are within his control. Is he driven enough to control them? I think it’s very possible that he could fall into the category of rotation-level; in that 20 minutes per game area where a lot of guys his size fall.
The idea of a 7’2” guy that could potentially protect the rim at a high level and space the floor on the offensive end is a very attractive one. Outside factors aside, in the modern NBA, this would seem like a no brainer gamble in an NBA Draft this devoid of surefire stars, but there are sobering questions.
Context will matter, perhaps more than normal. If a team with a cloudy future, a poor organizational culture and a crappy track record of player development rolls the dice on him, it could go poorly. If he’s mentored correctly and allowed to come along at his own pace, he has the tools to become a starter-level defensive anchor and a capable offensive contributor. This idea is true of most players, but I feel like it’s especially true with Bol.
Also, warning-warning-warning, gigantic red flag, here: Bol suffered a navicular stress fracture in his left foot, and opted for surgery to repair it. That’s reason to squirm if you’re thinking about pulling the trigger on a 7’2” center who loves to play on the perimeter, could stand to put on some weight and up his activity on defense. Just saying!
The Bol proposition is something that could really pay off, or it could be something that pisses a fan base off for years as he struggles to stay on the floor. In my gut, I don’t think I would have the stomach to take the chance, but in a draft like this one, this might be the year to do it. Let me know if you agree.