After being drafted 36th overall in the 2017 NBA draft, Jonah Bolden thought he was ready, both physically and mentally for the NBA.
In all truthfulness, he probably was - but the Philadelphia 76ers had other ideas. A lack of room on the 15-man roster heading into the 2017/18 season, meant Bolden had to delay his NBA debut, and ply his trade overseas. And so it came to be that the 6'10" forward packed his bags for Israel, after powerhouse team Maccabi Tel Aviv acquired his services from Philly.
After a 12-month stint in Europe, the Sixers rushed Bolden to Las Vegas to take part in the 2018 Summer League. At practice, the morning before Philadelphia played against the Los Angeles Lakers, Bolden spoke with The Pick and Roll about draft night, and his thoughts leading up to that moment.
"I had no doubt in my mind I was going to be picked in the top 60 in the draft, and I knew I was ready to play immediately," Bolden shared. "Philly gave me an opportunity and I'm really appreciative of what they gave to me. They actually called me up a couple picks before and explained to me the situation, told me it was a possibility that I could go over [to Europe] for a year."
How did Bolden react back then, when he knew he would be drafted to a franchise that would send him overseas right away?
"I didn't really hesitate to go with it, just because of the teammates I’d have; the culture they have, coaches, coaching staff."
The Maccabi season
Bolden was impressive in Israel. His athleticism and motor stood out for someone his size, and he was able to give every indication that he was NBA-ready. Bolden averaged 7.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists across 29 appearances for Maccabi Tel-Aviv, in 21.1 minutes per contest.
Though he may not have initially wanted to head overseas, he now looks back on that time in Israel as an overwhelming positive. It was a chance to hone his craft and create new experiences he likely would have never had otherwise.
"I obviously thought I was ready to play but looking back on it, I’m thankful for what happened. I made great friends, great teammates and here I am now."
On the court, Bolden was given an opportunity to play against seasoned professionals, in the renowned team-first basketball environment of EuroLeague. When asked about the area of his game that benefited the most from playing with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Bolden responded without hesitation.
"Finishing. Going to the EuroLeague, it’s a lot slower, [but it's a] physical game. Guys are a lot more experienced, especially at the power forward position. There are guys that are so-called legends in Europe for power forwards, so going up against them definitely helped me to mature on the court."
Returning to Summer League
The young forward makes no secret of his intentions to make his NBA debut later this year, and the latest step toward that moment took place at the Thomas and Mack Center on Saturday, as Bolden registered six points and six rebounds in his squad's 95-89 loss to the Boston Celtics.
Despite the widely-held belief that he would indeed to released back to the NBA for the 2018-19 season, it was not known whether or not he would be available for Summer League play, until just days before the tournament. As it turns out, Bolden himself was similarly uncertain of his own status for the Vegas tournament.
"I didn’t plan on coming until I was signed [last week]," Bolden revealed. "My agent came to me a couple days before I came here and said, ‘Come on, let’s go over there and play.’ I’d been working out at the time, and I was kind of just waiting to see what was going to happen.
"So as soon as he said, 'You’ve got the opportunity to go and play with Philly at Summer League', I didn’t hesitate. I hadn’t played for three weeks, so I was just excited to get back on the court with this team and these guys. There’s nothing better."
In person, Bolden is a towering figure, a standout athlete in the land of giants. He projects as a defensive difference maker in the NBA, his athletic ability allowing him to protect the rim and switch onto opponents across a variety of positions.
It didn't take long for Bolden to assert his authority in his 2018 Summer League debut, as he swatted a shot ferociously off the backboard in the game's opening minutes.
Offensively, he has range out to the 3-point line, making him an ideal candidate to play the small ball five for Philly, when All-Star big man Joel Embiid is off the floor. When asked about his ideal position moving forward, it's clear in Bolden's mind that not only does he know what he wants, he also understands the trends of modern NBA basketball, and how that translates into his projected role with the Sixers.
"Power forward. Summer League was the first time I’ve played the five, and it looks like I might be playing a lot more [at center], though I’m not really small - I’m 6’10," he needlessly reminds me, as I strain my neck looking up to him. "[Comfort]-wise, I definitely like playing power forward, but if you put me at the five, I’ll be a guy that can take them off the dribble with my mobility and quickness."
Mobility was a key point Bolden touched on regularly, and he seemed to have an understanding of his strengths on the floor. Being able to play a variety of roles and positions on both ends of the floor is a non-negotiable in the modern NBA, and Bolden displayed a mature, objective mind when analysing his own development and strengths.
One game down in Summer League - where is Jonah Bolden's next area of focus?
Bolden responded without a moment's hesitation. "Coming in with an aggressive mindset offensively and defensively, using my motor and keeping up that high performance throughout the game."
Energy has always been Bolden's calling card, dating back to his Summer League debut last year. He's been a tenacious defender, even on transition defence.
Should he keep that energy level up on offence, we could be seeing the 76ers' small-ball lineup thriving at an unprecedented level next season.
Focused on the now
On the back of an NBA free agency period where the Sixers have had key reserves move on, a role has opened up, one that looks to be tailor-made for Bolden. Veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova agreed to sign with the Milwaukee Bucks for next season, leaving behind a 24.1 minute hole at Jonah's preferred position of power forward.
It might be easy to look ahead at those types of opportunities on the horizon, but Bolden remains firmly fixed on the present.
"To be honest with you, I’m not really looking at trades or what they are doing minutes-wise. I’m working on the here and now. Right now, I’m here at Summer League. Tonight we play the Lakers, and I’m going to come out and do what I can," he responds. "I’m going to do my best to try and better my performance from [yesterday's game with the Celtics]."
In Boston's 95-89 victory against Philadelphia (stats), Bolden scored on 2/6 attempts and made two of his six free throws. Compared to teammate Furkan Korkmaz, who had 40 points on 10/18 attempts and made 12 of 15 free throws, Bolden was certainly a quiet performer that game.
"[The Boston] game is behind me, but it’s going to stick there to remind me I can do better."
There's that maturity and work ethic striking through once more. This is Summer League - predominantly a tournament for freshly drafted rookies and undrafted prospects to display their talents, in the hope of gaining a training camp contract. Bolden already has an impressive Summer League campaign under his belt last season, but he's not satisfied, after what seems like a poor debut game against the Celtics. He knew he hadn't proven himself, and was locked on the challenge he would face against the Los Angeles Lakers later that day.
Bolden is without doubt an impressive person. Being able to withstand the initial disappointment of not being able to enter the NBA and turn it into the overwhelmingly positive experience he clearly has, is a testament to his character and desire to succeed.
Australia is becoming quite the basketball development factory, as Bolden joins a host of Aussies contributing in the NBA, including teammate and Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons. But don't let the shadow of his Sixers teammate distract you.
Jonah Bolden is going to be good in the NBA - and you might not have too wait much longer to witness it.