April 19, 2019, 5:45 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to another installment of our International Spotlight weekly feature which will continue to keep you updated throughout the entire offseason. With fantasy season now in the books we will be looking at some young prospects that got little to no playing time this year before we turn the page and concentrate on the international class that will be eligible for the 2019 Draft in June.
Lakers combo guard/forward Isaac Bonga is the focus of our feature this week. The German prospect was one of the most intriguing International players of the draft last year, resembling Giannis Antetokoumpo in a lot of ways, as he played mostly in a lower division league and dominated against semi-professional basketball players. His stats in Germany really tell the whole story as he showed a lot of promise with the junior team but struggled in the majors against senior teams loaded with veterans.
Magic Johnson obviously loves big guards and the Lakers scouting department saw the potential in an 18-year-old kid who, at 6’8″, played point guard for the Frankfurt Skyliners in Germany. Leading up to the draft, the Lakers traded into the early second round for an opportunity to draft the Frankfurt native and the team then was smart enough to lock him down to a three-year deal in order to get him to come over immediately and develop in the G-League program.
As expected, he spent most of his rookie season in the minors, where he averaged 11.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks for the South Bay Lakers, and failed to impress at the NBA level where he averaged just 5.5 minutes and shot just 5-of-33 from the field and 0-of-8 from behind the arc, even after the Lakers decided to give more playing time to their young prospects late in the season.
Summer League Appearance
Bonga was nothing short of a mystery man when he appeared in Las Vegas but he showed an impressive size for a ball handler and the length to match defensively with his long arms and legs in just nine minutes per game in seven appearances. A raw talent, he was the youngest player drafted last year and it was clear that he is still learning the fundamentals of the game, getting repeatedly called for traveling and palming violations while missing wide open dunks.
Lakers Among the Best at G-League Development
The Lakers have struggled to win the last few years but their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, runs one of the most successful developmental programs around the league. By playing G-League veterans like Andre Ingram and former NBA players like Spencer Hawes they are able to win (they finished in the top-4 the last eight years) while at the same integrating young guys like former center Ivica Zubac and late-season sensation Alex Caruso.
Head coach Coby Karl has been given the freedom to build his own team every year and that has helped him develop teams with great chemistry that foster teamwork. His coaching style has been mostly about empowering his guys and not micromanaging them and his players have responded by showing tremendous growth and confidence in a short time. Luke Walton and Karl were on the same page during the entire season whenever there was a move to be made for a two-way player and the call-ups like Johnathan Williams, Alex Caruso and Jemerrio Jones have received significant playing time with the Lakers. The results speak for themselves as scrap guys like David Nwaba and Josh Magette were able to make it to the NBA after playing for Karl while Alex Caruso might not have the looks but has proved to be a solid rotation guard.
Physically Gifted with a Strong Basketball Mind
Bonga stands at 6’10” in shoes with a good wingspan (measured 7’0”) and his size at the point guard position is what instantly stands out with him. A late-bloomer physically, he might have an inch or maybe even more left while his underdeveloped frame has significant potential. He has struggled to gain weight so far, just like Giannis did when he entered the league, but I’m confident in his ability to physically develop under the guidance of a professional organization. Bonga excels in one-on-one defense against similarly sized players, as he is able to stay in front of them and use his size and his length to contain dribble penetration and contest shots even when getting passed by or when helping from the weak side.
An extremely gifted passer at such a young age, especially in transition, he uses his height to read defenses and drive to the rim and even though he is not very explosive, he compensates by showing impressive footwork and excellent body coordination. He still struggles to finish around the basket due to below average strength but he has the ability to get to the free throw line (2.7 trips per game) where he shot an impressive 81.2 percent. Possessing an outstanding feel for the game and great basketball instincts to go along with fluidity, intangibles and defensive potential, Bonga’s court vision and passing ability are advanced for a young player as he can handle the ball well with both hands. He shows a variety of creative dribbles including an inside-out, crossover and a lethal hesitation but turnovers are alarming and he will have to learn how to be a better distributor.
Shooting Woes and the Importance of Good Coaching
Coming from Europe, one of the things that pretty obvious about the rookie was how his jump shot was slow and needed a lot of refinement as Bonga disappeared when he was playing away from the ball.
In his Summer League and preseason play with the Lakers, Bonga attempted only four 3-pointers in total but once the G-League season started he was given the green light and finished the year launching 96 triples – 3.1 per game. The coaching staff worked on his stroke and Bonga’s jumper, specifically his confidence in letting it fly from 3-point range, saw a drastic improvement in his first year, something rare for kids coming from overseas.
His shot chart from the G League this season simply validates the above and leaves much to be expected from the young guard.
Point Guard or Off-Ball?
Bonga has an interesting foundational skill set thanks to his playmaking ability, positional size, defensive flashes, and potential jump shot and while he is a great stash candidate thanks to his youth, size, and all-around flashes, there has to be a plan about his long term development and the position he plays in the NBA. He is a gifted passer but smaller and quicker guards are able to steal the ball right from his hands due to the height difference that is not necessarily an advantage in today’s brand of basketball at the highest level.
Playing alongside lead guards like Alex Caruso and Scott Machado with South Bay has allowed him to experiment playing off the ball and he was able to quickly adjust due to his solid basketball IQ. His overall fantasy game can resemble that of a stat magnet as evidenced by his solid rookie season in the G League where he easily averaged a triple, a steal and a block in just 28 minutes per game. The question is whether he can evolve into a 3-and-D combo guard/forward like Giannis or a Ben Simmons-like point guard running the offense.
One-on-One vs. Team Defense
Bonga has the potential to be a multi-positional defender due to his size and mobility and he already guarded four different positions in the German league thanks to his quick feet and hands that get him a lot of steals and blocks. He uses his long wingspan to get in passing lanes and to contest shooters while he possesses the recovery speed and length to get back in plays, creating some memorable highlights.
— South Bay Lakers (@SouthBayLakers) March 1, 2019
Unfortunately, Bonga struggles with the concept of team defense as he doesn’t have very good instincts defensively, he is late to recognize switches and often gets beat backdoor due to his poor lateral quickness. During the last home game of the season the Jazz picked him apart by running back to back pick-and-roll plays against the rookie, who struggled to communicate with his teammates and rotate in a timely manner.
Busy Summer Ahead
Bonga knows he has to continue to work on his shooting and strength during the summer while he and Moe Wagner said in their exit interviews that they would love to play for the German national team this summer. The FIBA Basketball World Cup starts on August 31 and ends on September 15 so I’m not very optimistic about them getting more experience by playing with their national team since they would have to miss part of Summer League and the beginning of the training camp.
Bonga undoubtedly has unique tools with his size and mobility, but he looks like a tweener at this point and a questionable fit to the modern NBA with his skill set. He is an above-average passer who can guard smaller players, but he still doesn’t have the whole package to be a primary option on the offensive end. Next year will determine whether he can take the next step and we will be around to examine his progress.
Thank you for reading this article and please make sure you check us back again next week and throughout the offseason as more player breakdowns are coming up. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of RealGM.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of April 19th.