Site Manager Ryan Blackburn is beginning a new offseason series that will post every Monday titled “The Climb” which focuses on the journey of the Denver Nuggets during the Michael Malone era. From how the Nuggets recovered from obscurity to how they win their first championship, this will be an open editorial for the next however many months until the new season begins.
Next up is Bol Bol, social media sensation and maybe even a star on the court.
In late June of 2019, the Denver Nuggets media contingent was waiting for the 2019 NBA Draft to wrap up and to write our news stories about an uneventful evening. The Nuggets had traded away their first and second round picks in moves prior to the 2019 offseason, and there was little expectation that the Nuggets would do anything of note of draft night after nearing making the Western Conference Finals the previous month.
It probably wasn’t until around the 25th pick or so when the Nuggets started seriously considering trading back into what was believed to be a relatively weak draft. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant went first and second overall as expected, and the rest of the draft, save for Brandon Clarke going in the early twenties, went pretty much chalk. The young players went in the top 10, while the more effective college players were scattered all throughout the first round and may or may not be the most effective contributors in a few years. There was only one player who experienced a meteoric fall based on their talent level: Bol Bol.
Invited to the NBA Draft room, Bol was the only prospect invited to not be selected in the first round. He even fell to the middle of the second round where the Miami Heat selected him...for the Denver Nuggets, who decided to buy into the second round and acquire a talented player for a much lower draft price than they thought he was worth. Despite the medical and motivation questions, the Nuggets had Bol firmly in the top 10 of their draft board, and all they had to do to acquire him was send the Heat a 2022 second round pick and some cash. Expectations from Denver media were pretty low at the time, but after taking chances on injured prospects in the past for great success, the Nuggets front office had earned the benefit of the doubt to take a chance on a risky prospect.
It took a long time before Bol was even ready to play at the NBA level. At 7’2 and coming off a foot surgery that limited his experience at Oregon to just nine games, the Nuggets were understandably cautious with the now 20-year-old. Bol’s college numbers were reminiscent of Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, but he needed time to get healthy, develop strength in his lower body, and learn the NBA game. The Nuggets sent him to the Windy City Bulls with PJ Dozier, and those two improved during that time and found a rhythm.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and the Nuggets weren’t playing from March 11th until July 1st. The NBA had migrated into a bubble, and surprisingly, Bol Bol was among the group of Nuggets that traveled to Florida. He cleared quarantine, then he practiced, and then, in what seemed to be a dream at first, Bol suited up next to four other forwards and bigs and rained down hellfire in his NBA debut.
It was weird, and it came against the Washington Wizards, but Bol Bol looked great in his first NBA action. Though his play was sporadic after that, he still received some opportunities in Denver’s rotation to showcase the skills that the Nuggets have been raving about behind the scenes. He hit a three-pointer in four of his seven games, blocked at least one shot in four of the seven, grabbed at least four rebounds in four of the seven, and even flashed some passing ability. His physical tools were enough to capture the imagination of NBA fans everywhere to wonder whether he might be a member of Denver’s core going forward.
Of course, once the playoffs rolled around, Bol was back to playing strictly garbage time. He flashed many skills, but his understanding of concepts and ability to execute defensive schemes left a lot to be desired. Nobody expected Bol to become a major contributor overnight, but the fact that fans were already clamoring to see Denver’s newest rookie in legitimate playoff action was a testament to the impact he made in his limited time.
Very few players have ever arrived to the NBA and displayed a skill set like Bol. While the health remains a concern, his ability to suit up for 30+ minutes in the scrimmages and not have any residual injury effects should go a little way toward easing those concerns. Foot injuries are scary, but they aren’t a death sentence for a career if maintained properly, and they shouldn’t prevent a team from at least being curious about the potential of a dynamic young big man with perimeter skills.
How Bol’s talent impacts “The Climb”
The Nuggets are in a precarious position. After making the Western Conference Finals off the valiant efforts of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, there’s some pressure to prove that Denver’s playoff run inside the bubble wasn’t a fluke. The play of Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. in the bubble was also a positive for the Nuggets, because while Paul Millsap struggled, Gary Harris wavered a bit, and Will Barton was held out due to injury, Denver had two dynamic forwards put together some great performances and auditioned to be part of Denver’s future.
Beyond those four players—Murray, Jokić, Porter, and Grant—it’s unclear the direction the Nuggets feel like they need to go to reach their final form as a championship contender. They have been a rumored participant in the Jrue Holiday sweepstakes. They are constantly thrown into trade discussions surrounding other stars like Bradley Beal and Victor Oladipo to complement their current star duo. In the end, it’s very possible that the team just decides to bring the majority of their roster back (you know, the one that made the Western Conference Finals without a single playoff minute from Will Barton).
Part of becoming a legitimate championship contender is a certain dependability on the outcome. The organization, the opposition, and fans all have to simultaneously feel a certain inevitability in order to be fully acknowledged. It started to feel that way with the Los Angeles Lakers around February of this past year. For me, it always felt that way with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat before them.
The Nuggets don’t have that same gravity yet. Maybe that changes as Porter transitions into a full-fledged star. Maybe it never happens at all. With all of the variables surrounding the Nuggets, it makes a certain degree of sense to turn that variability into something solid. Something substantial. It’s why the Jrue Holiday rumors exist in the first place, as he would give the Nuggets a layer of consistency they don’t have outside of Jokić and Murray.
Bol Bol is possibly Line 1 on the Variability index for this Nuggets team. For nearly the entirety of 2019-20, he offered the Nuggets nothing of substance. A few flashes in the pan, and it’s possible that he might be something at the next level. Right now, they are only a few flashes though, and if Bol Bol was ever the difference between Denver adding a substantial upgrade to the current consistency of the roster, it feels like homer-ism to willingly deny such a move from happening.
And yet, the talent and skill level of Bol Bol is difficult to willingly give away in a trade. How many players in the NBA have ever displayed his combination of athleticism, shooting, and skill level on both ends? How many teams would offer up their blue chip prospect in exchange for the mystery box that is Bol Bol’s NBA future? If one could promise that Bol Bol would have seven seasons in which he exceeded 2,000 minutes played, how many teams would be calling Denver right now for a chance to add him to their rotation?
We haven’t even seen Bol play regular rotation minutes yet, and my guess is the Nuggets want to see him handle a rotation role for themselves before giving up on his talent. They have no idea what position he plays in the rotation (I think he’s a center that needs another big next to him, others think him a power forward or even a small forward). The only time he ever suited up next to Nikola Jokić came in scrimmages that didn’t count as well as seven total minutes of regular season bubble ball, which basically doesn’t count either. It’s unclear whether he and Jokić could play together, but it would certainly be fun to find out.
Whether Bol plays in a Nuggets uniform next season or he doesn’t, it certainly feels like Bol’s path on The Climb isn’t entirely over yet. It’s entirely possible that he’s the difference in an Anthony Davis matchup with the Lakers, or he wins a playoff series by giving the Nuggets a unique dimension they can count on when Jokić sits. Even still, it’s entirely possible that a transaction involving him gives way to the next key member of the Nuggets rotation to affect The Climb in a positive way.
Nobody can say for sure. All I know is I won’t be taking my eyes off of Bol Bol next year. He has the potential to alter the future no matter what.