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Tempering the expectations of newly acquired Bol Bol

He’s unique. He’s interesting. He’s got plenty to improve upon.

Orlando Magic v Phoenix Suns Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

There is plenty of excitement surrounding new Phoenix Suns big man Bol Bol. And why not? He’s 7’2” with a 7’8” wingspan. He shot 52% from beyond the arc at the University of Oregon. He has potential as a floor spacing rim protector, which is tailor made for the current version of NBA basketball. He’s a shockingly good ball handler given his size, just watch the YouTube highlights. He was the sixth-ranked player coming out of Findlay Prep and a projected top 5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Oh, and his pops is Manute Bol. At 7’7”, Manute played 10 years in the NBA from 1985 to 1995, and for those of us over 35-years old, he was quite the sight to see when he came to town.

So, yeah, the excitement in bringing Bol Bol to the Suns is valid. He is unique. He possesses one ability that you cannot teach: height. He possesses enticing physical tools as well as a special skill set. I too am interested in seeing what he does to affect the game and how he goes about doing so. I am also tempering my expectations as there are reasons behind the challenges he has faced as a pro.

When Bol Bol signed with the Phoenix Suns last week, the fan base rejoiced. This signing, to some, appeared to be the needle mover. This is the transaction that put the Suns’ summer over the top and into the hall of fame of off-season's by a general manager. Who needs Eric Gordon, we got Bol freakin’ Bol!

Unfairly, the media outlets put out pictures with Bol photoshopped in a Suns’ uniform standing next to Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal. Like Bol would complete a Big Four for Phoenix.

It’s time to snap back to reality, ope there goes gravity.

Bol, as intriguing as he is as a prospect, has yet to put it all together consistently in the NBA. Yes, part of that is due to injuries. In his four years in the NBA, he has played in 123 of 305 regular season games, missing time with numerous foot injuries. This has hampered his ability to mature and become a reliable NBA player and those two words – “foot injury” – are highly concerning when you are talking about an NBA big man.

Last season, after signing a two-year, $4.4 million contract with the Orlando Magic, was Bol’s best chance to garner playing time and make an impact, if he could stay healthy. Outside of a spat with COVID in January, that is exactly what Bol did. He had his healthiest season of his career, playing in 70 of his team’s 82 games and starting 33 of them. And after that, a young team who is developing players left and right, the Magic waived him and the $2.2 million is scheduled to make this season.

Why? He averaged a career-high in minutes (21.5), points (9.1), rebounds (5.8), field goal attempts (6.8), assists, (1.0), and two-point shooting (63.3%). Why wouldn’t the Magic re-invest in the talented big?

His season began on a positive note, and six games into the season, Bol was starting for the Magic. Suns’ fans remember how in sync he played. Orlando waxed Phoenix on November 11, 114-97, and it was Bol who shined with his 13 points and 15 rebounds.

As Bol played better and better, however, the Magic began losing games. In Orlando’s first 37 games, Bol started 32 of them. He averaged 26.1 minutes, 12 points, and 7.1 rebounds. While Bol was healthy, his teammates weren’t. Jalen Suggs missed 23 games, rookie Paolo Banchero missed 7, and Cole Anthony missed 18. The team was 13-24 as the calendar turned to 2023, and with their core stars returning to play, someone had to lose minutes.

That someone was Bol Bol.

In January his minutes were cut to 17.4 minutes, February was 16.3, and by March Bol Bol was averaging just 12.3 minutes a night. Orlando wanted to change direction, and that direction was away from Bol. He just didn’t have a chance, did he? Or did he, and Orlando didn’t like what they saw and/or understood how it would fit with their vision?

From an eye test standpoint, there is plenty to be concerned about relative to Bol. The YouTube highlights show some who is fluid in transition with elite ball handling skills, and due to his length he is unguardable around the cylinder. Just watch the video below from last season. Euro-step putbacks, transition slam dunks, aggressive putbacks. He has some of these skills in his bag.

These highlights represent roughly 9 minutes of Bol Bol’s 1,505 minutes played however. The video is of Bol at his peak capabilities. It’s not showing the weaknesses he displays with regularity.

As the season progressed and opposing defenses had more film on how Bol desired to navigate, they game planned for him. And it hurt his ability to be productive. He might be 7’2”, but given his 220 pound frame, his center of gravity was easy to exploit. Body him up and force him to take mid-range shots. Push him off his spot and his effectiveness decreased. Swipe at the ball and turnovers would occur.

You’d think with his size that his defensive prowess would be a reason for playing him. While he had 1.2 blocks-per-game last season, we didn’t experience the gameplay behind the stats. Bol would hunt for blocks, thus comprising the defense behind him. Per B-Ball Index, Bol graded out as a D+ in the 34%tile on rim deterrence and in the 39%tile in rim protection. He easily gets lost and effort starts to come into question.

It doesn’t get better on the perimeter, either. His on-ball perimeter defense is in the 1%tile, an F, and the worst in the league. Passing lane defense? 17%tile. F. Ball screen navigation? You see where this is going. 4%tile. F. He’s big, but he’s thin. He’s not physical enough to guard bigs, he’s not quick enough to guard wings. Defensively, Bol Bol is the anti-Hannah Montana. He’s the worst of both worlds.

Remember that 52% from deep for the Ducks I referenced above? That was on 25 total attempts. He played in just 9 games while in Eugene. His highlights show transition three-pointers, but overall in the NBA he is 29.3% from deep.

And then there is the effort and attitude conversation. It has been rumored that Bol doesn’t have the desire to excel as a basketball player. He plays because he is 7’2”, not because he loves to do so. Bol himself admitted that, “I feel I could’ve worked a lot harder,” when playing in Denver and he has a reputation of being disengaged when not playing.

When it comes to Bol Bol, there is plenty to be enthusiastic about. I don’t like to use the term “unicorn” often, but he may fit that moniker. He has potential as a player, but it would be foolish to go into the season expecting this small forward/center hybrid to be someone who enters the Suns’ elite rotation and dominates. That he becomes, as Bleacher Report photoshopped above, the fourth-best player on the team. Would it be nice? Sure. But, ope there goes gravity.

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