Jonah Bolden has taken his NBA opportunity with both hands.
Following the Jimmy Butler trade, the Philadelphia 76ers team that has been largely devoid of depth, and Bolden's entry into the Sixer's rotation has been a breath of fresh air.
Bolden brings something unique to the table. To succinctly boil it down: he turbocharges his team. There is a constant energy and motion to Bolden’s game, that brings a freshness to the team.
“He does some things that are different to anybody else we have on the team,” Brett Brown says of Bolden. That was evident from the very instant he burst onto the court against Toronto last month.
This above clip captures Bolden’s first 18 seconds against the Raptors. In a flash, he stonewalls Greg Monroe and makes a mockery out of his post-up, before exploding up the court and impacting the game with his high motor and athletic gifts. With the benefit of hindsight, this momentary glimpse into Bolden’s talent appears like a prophetic summary of how he’s helped Philadelphia of late.
Bolden has found his niche, after spending two months bouncing back and forth between the G League and the 76ers. Over the past fortnight, Bolden has made the first two starts of his NBA career and played in every Sixers game, besides Christmas Day in Boston. The Australian is averaging 21 minutes per game and improving with each passing outing.
The defensive end is where Bolden has impressed most in his early NBA minutes. He has shown a capacity to defend across multiple positions. Whether it be curtailing lumbering five men, as with Monroe above, or switching out to smaller guards on the perimeter, the Australian is already showing the signs of being a stretchy defender. Bolden, who stands at 208cm, is able to slide his feet and stay with much smaller opponents as they drive to the basket.
T.J. Warrens gets a step past Bolden, but it hardly matters. The Australian is able to close down airspace with his lengthy wingspan. In that sense, Bolden just needs to be close enough so that his athletic gifts can take over.
Bolden collected four first quarter blocks in that pre-Christmas contest against Toronto. While the number is inherently impressive, better yet was the fact these came within a variety of situations and against three completely different opponents. Monroe, Lowry and Pascal Siakam all got a first-hand glimpse of Bolden’s budding talents as a rim protector.
Bolden’s defence isn’t always perfect. He has an unfortunate knack of bailing opponents out with silly fouls - something we will explore later – but there is an undeniable spirit that is underpinned by his ability to cover space. His perpetual motion helps mask some of the mental lapses that are expected from an NBA rookie.
He has the best personal defensive rating (98.3) on the Sixers. The sample size is small – Bolden has only played 179 minutes – and there is a level of co-dependency on those around him, but Bolden is already a plus defender at the NBA level. That is a great sign for any first year player.
Running with Jo-Jo
Bolden has played 73% of his minutes alongside Embiid. This is no accident, either, with Sixers coaching staff deliberately matching the pair in a bid to maximise Bolden’s playing time. “I do play Jonah with Joel [Embiid] to get him on the court,” Brown says.
So what does playing alongside Embiid actually mean for Bolden? Defensively, it serves to take him away from the basket. Embiid is an elite interior defender and will always be the Sixers' primary rim protector when on the floor. This shifts Bolden into more of a perimeter-oriented role, although it doesn’t completely negate his ability to protect the rim. Bolden has done a good job of complementing Embiid and serving as a secondary rim protector.
Embiid also credits Bolden’s presence for allowing him to be more aggressive in contesting shots. “With guys like [Jonah], guys that are quick and can cover for other people,” Embiid says, “it allows me to just be a little bit aggressive and gamble because I know that someone is going to come for me.”
With Embiid and Bolden both in the game, opponents take 30% of their field goal attempts at the rim and are shooting 49% on such looks. Both numbers are elite. A greater sample is required before any definitive conclusions can be drawn, but it’s been a very promising start for Philadelphia’s budding twin-towers alignment.
“He is our safety net,” Bolden says of Embiid. “Knowing that we can play our hardest on the perimeter and we have someone like Joel behind us. It takes everything to the next level.”
Offensively, there has been more of a learning curve. This is especially true when it comes to Bolden finding his role within a scheme that emphasises post-ups and dribble handoffs at the expense of more commonly deployed of pick-and-rolls. Bolden has specifically cited the example of working off of both Ben Simmons and Embiid in the post.
“There is a big difference between when Joel has it in the post and when Ben has it in the post. Guys are able to slash, cut and move off of Ben. With Joel, it is about spacing and being in the right spots; knowing that if he gets double-teamed and your man goes, you’re going to be open.”
Bolden has taken 21 three-point attempts this season; 20 of these have been “open” or “wide open” as defined by the NBA’s shot tracking data. The majority of these have come from actions involving Simmons or Embiid.
Unfortunately for Bolden, he is only 3 of 21 from beyond the arc. His shooting stroke aesthetically looks much improved from when he debuted at 2017 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, but the results are yet to translate on the court.
Sixers coaching staff firmly believe Bolden’s shot will come around. Those around the team hope it can be relied up before the current season is complete. Philadelphia is just like every NBA franchise. Conceptually, they a want a low-usage four man who can play away from the basketball and knock down shots.
On the above play, Bolden sets a high-screen for Embiid and generates a switch from the Clippers defence. Poor Mike Scott is now in all sorts of trouble. Predictably, and wisely, Boban Marjanović clamps down to help on Embiid, as Bolden drifts out to the corner. Embiid then makes a simple pass for a wide open corner three.
This play is not groundbreaking, but if Bolden can start converting his jump shots, his playing time will soar. Considering everything he brings to the table defensively, an offensive touch would make Bolden the Sixers' best reserve option at both the four and five. Mike Muscala receives 23 minutes a game based largely on his ability to stroke the ball and stretch opposition defences out. If Bolden can imitate Muscala in this regard, he could harbour realistic ambitions of supplanting his veteran teammate.
On the flip side, if Bolden’s shooting struggles continue, opponents will start ignoring him with greater frequency. I consider this may become the norm until Bolden proves he can shoot at a decent clip. Embiid is too dominant an offensive player to be overlooked and Bolden, despite all his progress, remains unproven. He is the logical starting point for defensive schemes looking to send an extra man at Embiid. That makes plays like this one from the Clippers game instructive.
Bolden has done a great job of not resting on his laurels when Embiid posts up. Getting on the offensive glass is another way for him to impact NBA games. This rings true regardless of whether Embiid is on the court, as Bolden has the highest personal offensive rebounding rate (11.2%) on the Sixers roster.
Philadelphia isn’t a prolific offensive rebounding team. They rank 20th in the NBA, and the majority of these come as a function of their personnel operating close to the basket (namely Embiid and Simmons) as opposed to a commitment to crashing the glass.
With Bolden capable of getting to the rim in an instant, allowing him to aggressively chase offensive rebounds is a strategy worth exploring for Brown and the coaching staff. This is especially true when Embiid operates out of isolation plays, considering the Cameroonian is shooting a dire 31% on two-point jump shots this season. There are plenty of rebounds to be had and Bolden will, in the majority of situations, be the biggest combatant for them.
The Sixers collect offensive rebounds on almost one third of their missed shots when Embiid and Bolden share the court. They are, predictably, a gigantic problem for opponents when paired around the basket. Good luck keeping two near seven-footers of the glass.
The fact Brown is pairing Bolden with Embiid is indicative of how Philadelphia feels Bolden is best deployed early in his career. The Sixers head coach was asked about Bolden's ideal position over the weekend and the response was not surprising.
“I like him in both spots. I like him like we used Richaun Holmes last year. He played next to Joel a little bit, but played a reserve five more than a four.
“Jonah’s got the ability to do both. The fact that he can stretch the floor and do some of those second side things, with rim protection and make plays at the rim, is true if he is playing next to Joel.
“I think as a five man he can speed the game up. He can step out and shoot a three.
“As we project his future, I think he’s going to end up being able to play both positions. If you made me say one thing, I would say more of a four than a five. But I think he will be able to play both.”
Improvement areas: fouling and team defence
Speaking to reporters over the weekend, Brown joked that Bolden committed 11 first quarter fouls against Phoenix last week. The actual figure was three, but the Sixers leader’s sentiment rings true. Bolden fouls a tonne. He has been whistled on 7% of all possessions when in the game. On a per minute basis, he is one of the most penalised players in the NBA.
Bolden is a walking representation of the “getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar” idiom. He has a nasty habit of reaching for the basketball when defending, and it plagued the first start of his NBA career in Phoenix. Bolden was called for three fouls in five minutes to open the game, and this total could have easily been five or six. This firmly falls under the banner of an inexperienced athlete trying too hard to make a play. Time and experience should clean this up.
Adapting to a wider defensive scheme is something Bolden, in conjunction with the Sixers coaching staff, has raised as an improvement area.
“The coaching staff point out to me some opportunities to work within the team defence,” Bolden explained following Saturday’s victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “Watching the film, there were a couple times where they saw me out there denying one of the opposition players, where I could have helped the team and been more of a help player, especially when Joel isn’t in the game. Just key points on defence and ways that we can all play together.”
The coaching staff have a point, as Bolden has a tendency of focusing too hard on his direct opponent. Once again, this is far from concerning and time is the only elixir. Butler, who has been in the NBA for eight years and is a perennial All-Star, spoke yesterday about his struggles adapting to a new defensive scheme after his mid-season trade. Regardless of your experience level, adjusting to NBA defensive principles is not an easy thing.
Right on the edge
Bolden’s opportunity came in large part because of injuries to those above him in the pecking order. All of Embiid, Chandler, Butler and Muscala have all missed games over the past month. That created the good fortune needed for the Australian to crack Brown’s playing rotation.
“I think Jonah is on the cusp of holding on to a rotation spot,” Brown said. “I do. I hope to continue to grow him. He has earned it. Historically, we have been comfortable playing a nine-man rotation, sometimes 10. I will continue to do that. He is, right now, in the 10. I suspect he will still be receiving minutes.”
Bolden is a rookie, and that fundamentally brings an element of risk, especially for a Sixers team with aspirations making the NBA Finals. But it would be near impossible to turn away from Bolden now. His last fortnight of basketball has been impressive in so many ways.
Jonah Bolden has earned a place in the rotation and shown that this Sixers roster, as currently constituted, is better with him playing.