From UCLA to Serbia: Jonah Bolden's quest for success in the NBA

Jonah Bolden’s quest for the NBA has been anything but normal.

What started as an Australian suburban dream was quickly accelerated with high profile American prep schools, that in turn took him to the most successful collegiate program in men’s basketball. UCLA was supposed to be the final stepping stone towards The Association - well, that was the theory. Reality proved otherwise.

Bolden’s time at UCLA was a non-event from the outset. The young Australian was forced to redshirt his entire freshman season as issues regarding time spent at Findlay Prep and Brewster Academy –- two of North America’s most renowned NBA incubators -– delayed his NCAA eligibility. A sophomore season spent playing out of position and fighting the distractions of Southern California then spelt the end of his collegiate experience.

“At UCLA I did a little bit but I didn’t do as much as I felt I could do,” Bolden told The Pick and Roll. “I wasn’t satisfied with my performance, and that’s on me.”

Bolden’s much publicised Bruins career produced a total of 31 appearances and yielded a meagre 144 points. Such returns pale in comparison to the lofty expectations when Bolden committed to the school in 2013.

It was Los Angeles, it was UCLA and young Jonah was the high profile Australian recruit on a basketball team that everyone knew. Throw in the demands of being a student athlete, and the potential distractions were endless.

“If you’re not 100% dedicated, then you will get distracted,” Bolden said of his time at UCLA. “I can definitely say that is what happened to me.”

“At UCLA I really didn’t do too much because I didn’t have a sole purpose.”

In his quest to find that ‘sole purpose’, Bolden withdrew from UCLA last July and called time on what was a tumultuous college career. As a 20-year-old, Bolden headed to Europe to sign his first professional contract with Serbian side FMP Belgrade.

While moving to Europe and adapting to life as a professional was challenging, Bolden credits Europe for much of his maturation, calling the decision to leave amateur basketball a turning point for his career.

“This has been the best decision I have made for my career,” Bolden told The Pick and Roll.

“My game has just taken to another level based on myself and the fact I dedicated my decision to doing what has been done so far. I’ve rejuvenated myself.

“My mentality has changed and that has translated onto the court with the team I am on now.”

While FMP finished the season with a disappointing 10-16 record and missed the playoffs, Bolden enjoyed a breakout season. He averaged 12.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1 steal per game en route to being named the Adriatic League’s top prospect. Bolden’s performances only reinforced his NBA potential, thanks to the glaring differences between UCLA and professional basketball in Belgrade.

“I came from college and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” Bolden explained when talking about the transition to European basketball. “From high school to college, I was always playing with kids my own age. You’d have your coach, your assistant coaches and everyone that knows you and recruited you.

“But now, I come out here and I am the youngest on the team. You have guys that, after practice, you don’t really go and hang out with them. They go back to their wives and kids, and they have their own personal lives. Living on my own forced me to mature. [I] just [had to] grow up and turn into a man.”

Jonah against the world

While Bolden’s growth in Europe extends beyond basketball, it would be naive to overlook improvements made on the hardwood.

Standing at 6’10”, Bolden has always possessed an impressive cocktail of skills for someone of his size, owning the ability to thrive as a ball handler whilst sliding all around the court. Those talents got him recruited to UCLA and they have been further honed in Europe.

Being afforded the opportunity to play more minutes at the four, undergoing growing pains whilst off the radar in Eastern Europe, made him a more capable NBA prospect. DraftExpress currently rank Bolden as a second-round prospect and have highlighted the talent evidenced during his lone season with FMP.

Bolden is one of the final elements to Australia’s golden generation. While he will enter the NBA Draft with a lesser pedigree that those who have come before him, he possesses a mindset that is truly unique.

“My mentality has changed since I’ve been [in Europe],” Bolden said. “Obviously I’ve got my family and my support group, but I do feel it is me against the world right now. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder and something to prove.”

Jonah’s support group is led by his father, Bruce, who played 17 seasons in the NBL (National Basketball League). Whilst having a father with professional basketball experience has helped Jonah make pivotal decisions over the past 12 months, there is a higher power within the Bolden family that pushes him towards his goal.

“I’ve got my late grandmother and my late uncle, and I do it for them,” Bolden told The Pick and Roll. “It’s a day-to-day grind but I’ve got one goal, so I’m going to keep pushing.”

When quizzed on what that one goal looks like, Bolden only reinforced a family spirit that appears to be the driving force behind a burgeoning professional career.

“The end goal is to have an extremely successful career, but for me it’s to make my family proud. I know that they say they’re proud of me already but I feel I’m definitely not satisfied. Just for me personally, I do this for my grandmother and my uncle.”

Ready for the NBA

June’s NBA draft is quickly approaching and Bolden is prepared for his opportunity. In fact, when asked if he was now ready for the NBA, Bolden’s response was emphatic.

“Most definitely,” Bolden confirmed. “I believe I’m more than ready for the NBA.”

Regardless of which franchise calls his name on June 22nd, Bolden believes his long served apprenticeship allows him to be an immediate contributor and receive NBA minutes right away.

“I feel like I can provide a lot to a team,” Bolden said. “Whether that’s coming off the bench and being an energy guy. Not even being an offensive guy, I could be a straight defence guy.

“If they want me to be a shooter I can come in, run lanes and spot up for the guys to hit me. Whatever role they want me to do and whatever needs to be done, I’ll do it.”

Not only is Bolden prepared to play any role to kick-start an NBA career, he is also ready to put in the work required to elevate his game to stardom. Bolden grew up a Toronto Raptors fan and now uses the Raptors' All-Star shooting guard as inspiration, when toiling away in the gym.

“I really like how DeMar DeRozan was ranked the 46th best player before this NBA season [referring to Sports Illustrated’s top 100 player ratings] and at the end of the season he is averaging 27 points.

“You just see that he came in with a chip on his shoulder and did the work in the summer. You just see the difference it makes and I mould myself after him, not his game but his mentality. I look at how he went from being a scorer to being the main guy.”

And while Bolden admits it’s good hearing his name in mock drafts and NBA scouting circles, his brief college career has taught him that nothing is guaranteed.

“What I’ve realised from my past is that if you don’t do anything, nothing is going to happen. No mater where your name is or what projection you have.

“I realised that action does more than talking. I realised that by just doing the work and putting in the unseen hours that the results will come.”

Jonah Bolden has the talent to become Australia’s next NBA athlete and his mindset could elevate him to superstardom. But his work ethic and family pride, these are the elements that will ensure he is a success to those who matter most.