Following a disappointing collegiate career at UCLA, Jonah Bolden had become an afterthought among NBA draft prospects. Little did we know that turning professional would be the best decision of his young career. In a matter of months, Bolden catapulted himself onto NBA draft boards with a string of impressive performances for Serbian club FMP. The Philadelphia 76ers took note, selecting him early in the 2nd round of the 2017 draft, and after a further year in Europe, made his NBA debut last season.
Bolden initially struggled to find playing time in his rookie season, appearing in just 7 of the Sixers' first 30 games. This included a G-League assignment just 2 weeks into the season.
In total, Bolden made eight G-League appearances across the year. He put up impressive numbers there, averaging 15.3 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
Jonah's fortunes finally took a turn for the better in December. Playing primarily as a backup centre that could stretch the floor, he would appear in most of Philadelphia's remaining games and even made 10 starts, leapfrogging veteran big man Amir Johnson in the rotation.
However, the trade season brought forth new challenges for young Bolden. The 76ers acquired Boban Marjanovic in the Tobias Harris trade, a blow to Bolden's playing time. To make matters worse, Greg Monroe was signed just prior to the playoffs.
Bolden was used sparingly throughout the postseason. Both Marjanovic and Monroe received more playing time than the Sydney native, who only logged 79 minutes across 10 games.
Despite a tough conclusion to to his promising rookie campaign, Bolden has plenty to be proud of considering his journey. The former UCLA misfit is just beginning his NBA career, on a team poised to make a playoff run in 2020.
What is Bolden's role with the 76ers?
Marjanovic and Monroe may no longer be on the 76ers roster, but Al Horford and Kyle O'Quinn have joined. Bolden will likely be used as a backup centre again, making O'Quinn a major rival for playing time. The versatility of Horford and Tobias Harris also cannot be ignored.
Harris largely played power forward last season, but is now expected to move into Jimmy Butler's old position. Nevertheless, Brett Brown may occasionally run lineups with Harris at the 4. If Embiid is off the floor and Harris plays power forward, Horford could find himself at centre. Lineup variations would hence be another challenge for Bolden, who already has to deal with the arrival of O'Quinn.
Fortunately for the Australian, O'Quinn is coming off an underwhelming stint in Indiana. Also, throughout his NBA career, O'Quinn has never averaged over 18 minutes per game for a season. At age 29, the journeyman centre may even be past his prime.
Furthermore, Joel Embiid's health is unpredictable. The Cameroonian 7-footer missed 18 games last season and 19 games the year before. With load management becoming increasingly common in the NBA, the 76ers may exercise caution with their star centre. Bolden's opportunity will come if Embiid elects to rest or misses games due to injury.
For those speculating whether Bolden might play power forward occasionally, this is unlikely. Al Horford is the starting 4, with Mike Scott commanding roughly 20 minutes per game as a backup. In addition, Harris has the ability to play the power forward position if required.
Defense underpins Bolden's value
Bolden's value lies in his defensive play. With a height of 6'10, a wingspan of 7'3 and impressive mobility for his size, Jonah isn't short on physical tools. He is capable of protecting the rim and then switching onto smaller players without much trouble, a show of defensive versatility.
However, Bolden is no stranger to foul trouble, averaging 2.3 fouls in just 14.5 minutes per game. 76ers fans were hoping to see Jonah improve on his defensive IQ, but his fouling woes have continued into the recent preseason matches. It's early days yet, but to overtake O'Quinn in the rotation, Bolden has to show discipline on the defensive end.
On the offensive end, Bolden is relatively unpolished. Despite hitting three's at a respectable 35.4% clip last season, the sample size is small. In addition, Bolden was "wide open" (no defender within 6 feet) for 80% of his 3-point attempts, as per NBA Advanced stats. That 35.4% mark looks much less impressive when you factor this in.
Also, his free throw percentages over the past few years indicate that his stroke is still a work in progress. Bolden shot 48.1% from the charity stripe last season, 51.2% the season prior and 60.2% two years ago. Very few players are capable of hitting three's efficiently while struggling at the free throw line.
But why the emphasis on shooting you ask? Isn't Bolden a backup centre? Well, the NBA has evolved. Bolden's shot chart from last season (see below) highlights the importance of spacing in today's league. Of his 181 field goal attempts last season, 112 came from beyond the arc. Out of the remaining 69 shots, 55 were at the rim.
With just 14 mid-range shots for the entire season, Bolden's role appears to be very clear: either shoot a 3 or take the ball inside. He has little trouble at the rim, where he finishes at an 80% rate. If Bolden wishes to increase his offensive value in the modern NBA, his shooting would be a good place to start.
Bolden's less-than-ideal off-season
Bolden finally wore the green and gold this off-season, stepping out for the Boomers in their exhibition series against Canada. He was a standout performer in game 2, potentially laying the groundwork for a strong World Cup campaign. Unfortunately for Australian fans however, he subsequently withdrew from the World Cup, citing personal reasons.
Speculation was rife regarding Bolden's departure. Boomers legend Andrew Gaze suggested the big man may have been unhappy with his role. Bolden's disengagement from the Boomers is a worrying sign, for the Boomers, the Sixers and Bolden himself, especially with the Tokyo Olympics looming large.
Following his Boomers stint, the Sydney product returned to Philadelphia, beginning preparations for the upcoming season. He recently appeared in 5 preseason games, averaging just 9.6 minutes in a familiar backup centre role.
The preseason is often an opportunity for role players to step up; hence why Bolden's lack of playing time is disappointing. Nevertheless, the preseason is a small sample and there are numerous fringe NBA players jostling for minutes. Bolden's performances behind closed doors, at the 76ers' training camp, is likely leave a bigger mark on Brett Brown.
The first few games of the 2019–20 season will indicate where Bolden sits in the rotation. A key point of interest will be his minutes, and whether or not he plays more than Kyle O'Quinn.
It will also be interesting to see what long-term damage may have been caused following his abrupt exit from the Boomers program just prior to the World Cup. Whether he will be given another opportunity to prove himself and be selected for the Boomers at the Tokyo Olympics will be something worth following.