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What to Expect from Bol Bol

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How much does 7’2 matter in today’s NBA?

Denver Nuggets v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

I first learned about Manute Bol from the gray-bordered NBA Hoops card I got in 1991. As an 9-year-old who would watch whatever Bulls and Nuggets games I could get on the small fuzzy TV in my room, my knowledge of other players in the league was largely limited to the cards I scrounged together in trades or from the occasional foil pack. But I still vividly remember Manute’s arms reaching to the rafters and being in awe that there were real-life giants in the NBA who could seemingly touch the rim without jumping.

The truth was, though, there were a lot of freakishly tall players in the 90s. Gheorge Muresan, Mark Eaton, Shawn Bradley, Rik Smits, Ralph Sampson — the list goes on. In an era of NBA basketball where defense ruled and offense was built around the post, crazy-tall centers were seen as a necessity.

But as the game moved outward, the Shaq’s and Yao Ming’s of the league became the exception to the point that in today’s NBA, there is a playoff team in Texas starting a 6’6 player at center. The emphasis is on skill over size with the best players in the league having the ideal blend of height, weight, and length that they can defend multiple positions but with the athleticism to score inside and out. The ideal player in today’s NBA is the 6’8 small forward who can switch onto a point guard or a center and create offense from anywhere on the court.

Enter Bol Bol — Manute’s son and a throwback to the towering centers of the 80s and 90s. Is there a place for such a player in today’s NBA? The Nuggets think so, and for good reason.

What We Know

We know that Bol is 7’2 with a 7’8 wingspan. That kind of length can’t be taught, coached, or developed, obviously, and it also means he will be one of the tallest players in the league. We also know he has an understanding of what it will take to succeed in the NBA. Manute was a driving influence on his son, who even wants to carry on his father’s legacy of philanthropy in their home country of Sudan. The list of current NBA players who built on their fathers’ experiences to become even better pros isn’t insignificant.

We also know that while Bol’s size may be a throwback, his game really isn’t. Unlike his father and many of the other giants of the past, Bol can shoot. He can shoot from three, he can shoot from the elbow, from the free throw line. When he pulls up, he looks like a basketball player, not just a specimen wearing a jersey.

We also know that these skills translate to on-court production. When Bol played at the collegiate and G-league levels, he was highly effective. Here is what Bol did in nine games at Oregon:

Oregon Stats

Minutes Per Game PPG RPG APG BLKS STLS FG% 3P% FT%
Minutes Per Game PPG RPG APG BLKS STLS FG% 3P% FT%
29.8 21 9.6 1 2.67 0.78 0.561 0.52 0.757

In eight games in the G League, Bol put together this stat line:

G League Stats

Minutes Per Game PPG RPG APG BLKS STLS FG% 3P% FT%
Minutes Per Game PPG RPG APG BLKS STLS FG% 3P% FT%
19.2 12 5.8 0 2.3 0.1 57.7 36.4 100

In this game against the Santa Cruz Warriors, Bol demonstrates an ability to shoot mid-range jumpers as well as threes and to be an effective rim protector and rebounder. It’s obvious why the Nuggets swooped into the second round to steal him:

So Bol is much more than just a very tall human. Unlike some of the less skilled trees of bygone eras in the NBA, Bol can handle the ball, he has a feathery shooting touch, and he seems to understand the game. If everything comes together for the 20-year-old, he’s going to have a long career in the NBA and the means to do a lot of good for the people of Sudan.

What We Don’t Know

There’s a reason the Nuggets were able to get Bol in the 2nd round. His health is—and will always be—a concern. Very much like Michael Porter Jr., Bol’s talent has largely been untested because of injuries at a young age. After just 17 games of collegiate and pro basketball, no one can say for sure whether or not his large frame can hold up to the grind of an NBA season. Also similar to MPJ is the fact that Bol’s ceiling may be limited by ailments that are largely out of his control. It’s scary that he’s already having foot issues, a common career ender for the mega tall. His height makes him unique, but it could also be the cause of the very injuries that derail him.

We also don’t know if the Nuggets will have a regular spot in their rotation. Much depends on what the team does with Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap, who are both free agents. It’s unlikely they will have the money to sign both—especially in light of the uncertain financial landscape in which we find ourselves—so Bol could be able to fill the backup center position, giving the bench unit an intriguing combination of length and shooting with Jerami Grant and MPJ. But if the Nuggets are determined and able to resign both of their big men, Bol may be left filling the seat Jarred Vanderbilt just vacated.

What Nuggets Fans Should Expect in 2020

Assuming the Nuggets do not retain both Millsap and Plumlee, then Bol Bol will probably have a 2020 that will look eerily similar to MPJ’s 2019. For better and worse, Coach Malone brings along rookies at a slow pace, preferring experience and defensive acumen to raw talent. It took time for Jokic and Murray to break through; MPJ is still fighting for minutes; and even Malik Beasley’s standout performance in the playoffs last year coupled with Gary Harris’ offensive struggles didn’t have any impact on the rotation. Bol probably will face a similar rookie wall.

The one silver lining for the big guy is that he does provide the Nuggets with something on the defensive end that they desperately need—rim protection. If he can tighten up his rotations and get a quick grasp of the Nuggets’ scheme while playing with hustle and tenacity on that end, then Malone could bring him along sooner than Murray, MPJ, and Beasley. If that happens, Bol will give the Nuggets even more length and shooting, which could eventually be enough to get them over the top in the Western Conference.

Stay tuned.