January 11, 2019, 8:17 pm
Happy Friday Hoop Ballers and welcome to another installment of our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into Jonah Bolden, the Australian forward who has recently found a place in Brett Brown’s rotation after spending the early part of the season bouncing back and forth between the G-League and the Sixers bench.
Jonah is the son of former pro basketball player Bruce Bolden, an American who played 17 years in the Australian National Basketball League. He lived in Australia until 2013 before moving to the United States where he played in two different high schools and was heavily recruited by Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana, USC and SMU before eventually committing to UCLA. He had to redshirt his freshman year after being ruled ineligible and decided to leave college after his sophomore season in order to play in the Adriatic league with KK FMP of Belgrade, Serbia. Bolden felt that he was underutilized and forced to play out of position during his stay in UCLA and opted to play overseas in an attempt to increase his draft stock.
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FMP, Draft Night and the Summer League of 2017
The move to FMP was definitely the smart thing to do at the time since, as I’ve previously discussed, the Adriatic league lacks athleticism and many agents choose to place their young clients there as they can dominate against older and less-explosive athletes. Bolden was named the Top Prospect in the ABA after averaging 12.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.0 block per game, all while launching 4.2 triples per game and converting on 41.9 percent on them. The Sixers didn’t hesitate to make him the No. 36 in the 2017 draft and he immediately impressed in Summer League, scoring 8.8 points to go with 6.3 rebounds, all while showcasing a versatile game on both sides and the ability to stretch the floor and play above the rim.
Stashed Overseas and Another Summer League
Unfortunately for him, the Sixers were loaded in the middle and there was no room for him to make the roster, therefore Jonah was destined to spend another year in Europe. On June 10th, just twelve days before the NBA draft, Bolden signed a two-year contract with another Adriatic League team, Red Star of Belgrade, but before even suiting up for a single regular season game for the Serbian team, Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv bought his rights and signed him to a two-year contract with an NBA out clause. Playing at a much higher level and competing in the EuroLeague, he helped Maccabi win the Israeli League Championship and the Israeli League Cup, averaging 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks and 0.8 triples per game, slowly maturing his game and learning how to play within a system.
A subpar Summer League by the Aussie (where he still averaged 6.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks in 23 minutes per game) had many wondering if he would end up playing in Philadelphia this year but the Sixers were always high on him and they ended up trading away Richaun Holmes in order to sign him to a four-year deal. While in Las Vegas and Utah, Bolden had his ups and downs on the defensive side of the ball. He was too eager to try and make plays, often rushing his decisions and being forced into silly mistakes while shooting just 35 percent from the field.
Lack of Bench Production in Philadelphia
Brett Brown didn’t have enough talent to be competitive during his early days as Sixers coach and, in a funny way, after the Jimmy Butler acquisition he found himself sitting in a similar position – at least towards the back of the roster. Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala have been nothing but inconsistent, failing to contribute in areas where the team is struggling. On top of that, all of Joel Embiid, Chandler, Butler and Muscala have missed games over the past month and that opened up Bolden’s opportunity to finally step on the NBA court.
In the last few weeks he has made the first two starts of his NBA career and has played in almost every game. One of the things that this bench unit has desperately needed is athleticism and the Australian forward has been able to provide that while bringing a tremendous amount of energy on both sides of the ball. Look at him using his length to disturb Chasson Randle and then immediately sprinting for the easy dunk.
And after the recent success, Brett Brown finally acknowledged that Bolden, who hadn’t gotten regular minutes until the team’s West Coast trip, had earned a spot in the team’s rotation. So what’s so special about him?
It’s been well established the last couple years that the ability to play above the rim and effectively switch defensively is one of the traits that is being valued the most in the modern NBA and Bolden’s raw talent brings exactly that to the table.
An Upgrade to an Iso-Heavy Offense
Bolden’s athleticism simply makes the Sixers offense more diverse and less predictable as his ability to cut to the middle and finish strong around the rim opens up more opportunities for easy buckets. The majority of the offensive touches in Philadelphia go to Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, but Bolden doesn’t need the ball in his hands and the combination of size and speed he possesses often makes him look unguardable. Look at this sequence where the Portland defense closes in on Jimmy Butler, who has a mismatch against a smaller Seth Curry, while nobody puts a body on Bolden, who finishes with the easy dunk.
While he brings a tremendous amount of much-needed athleticism to the table, shooting the ball effectively hasn’t been a strong part of his game so far and it will be the key to unlocking more minutes in the future. As previously explained, the Sixers’ offensive scheme lacks the traditional pick-and-roll action and is focused more on post-ups by the big three. Bolden often finds himself open and he has to take that shot even though he has been brutal, making just 3-of-22 from behind the arc so far this season.
His stroke does look smooth, most of his touches are usually wide open, he has been hitting threes in his entire professional career and the numbers in G-League this season are solid (15-of-43 on a stunning 7.2 attempts (!) per game which translates to 34.9 percent from behind the arc), so I believe it’s just a matter of time that he does spread the floor effectively.
I have to mention though that while playing in Europe he developed a few bad habits and one of them is how he settles for long jumpers instead of attacking or at least pump faking and beating his opponents with his speed. Here is a possession where as Simmons slowly posts up, Bolden’s defender (Maxi Kleber) is closing in on the middle, opening up an almost wide-open shot from the top of the key.
Playing Above the Rim
I’ve watched quite a few Sixers game this season and one of the things that struck me is how the team very often opts to immediately have their players rush back when a shot is released in order to limit transition opportunities by opponents. The Sixers were very successful in doing so last year, allowing only 10.3 fast break points to opponents, but with the chance of personnel this year Brett Brown has realized that a change in strategy is required. Enter Bolden and his ability to create more second chance opportunities for a team that is averaging a mere 13.4 points on possessions after offensive rebounds (good for 13th in the league).
The athletic forward is able to crash the boards and collect rebounds, especially from the weak side when Embiid or Simmons get double-teamed in the low post. Having two (almost) seven-footers around the basket creates a lot of problems in a league that is going small but Bolden is a versatile forward with a rare combination of speed and length. Just look at how fast he comes flying for the putback jam after Embiid misses the fade-away shot from the baseline.
Undoubtedly, the ability to guard multiple positions was the main reason why Bryan Colangelo used a second-round draft pick on Bolden back in 2016. And the athletic forward has proved that he is able to do just that, going after much bigger opponents while also being able to hold his ground against smaller and faster perimeter players. Standing at 6’10”, he has really long arms and a very good wingspan (measured at 7’3”) while possessing very good jumping ability and lateral quickness, combined with defensive instincts that allow him to cover a lot of ground. Look at him getting switched to a much faster Kyle Korver who attacks the rim and thinks he has an open lane as Bolden swats his layup away.
Not everything is perfect obviously and he still has a lot of work to do if he wants to be considered as an elite switch defender. The main issue has been the lack of focus which leads to unnecessary fouls. And while someone might think that this is a result of him being a rookie I have to emphasize how he showed the same habit while playing overseas. Here is Bolden bailing out Devin Booker with just five seconds left on the clock on a pretty bad defensive coverage.
Bolden has spent most of his time on the floor next to Joel Embiid and this is by no means a coincidence as Brett Brown has talked about the importance of having a secondary rim protector that can come from the weak side. The rookie is a versatile player, relentless on the glass, he moves well with and without the ball, attacks closeouts thanks to his solid first step and possesses above average court vision. And he is still adjusting to playing within an NBA system.
High Fantasy Floor
Following the departure of Rob Covington and Dario Saric, the Sixers are desperate for some help in the power forward position and the emergence of Jonah Bolden has been a really nice surprise in a season with many ups and downs.
The NBA is obviously trending towards a five-out formation, where all five players on the court are capable of stretching the floor with deep shooting. Even though Bolden is still raw, his combination of size and skill make him a perfect fit in the league as a big man who can roll to the rim, shoot the three and contribute in the concept of team defense. The potential of him becoming a stretch forward and a rim protector makes him a really intriguing prospect as he can develop into a “jack of all trades,” similar to how Pascal Siakam has emerged in Toronto, and I’m buying all the stock I can in dynasty leagues. The money counter stats have always been there and as long as the kid keeps working on his game I’m very optimistic about his development in the next few years.
Hope you enjoyed learning more about another international hidden gem of our league and let’s see if he can continue getting minutes now that the Sixers are healthy and their forwards are back to action. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and 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 NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of January 11th.