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Bollercoaster in the Valley: What Phoenix Suns can expect from Bol Bol

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
July 19, 2023

The Phoenix Suns haven’t made it official yet, but soon enough, Bol Bol will be announced as their final addition from a busy 2023 offseason.

Following a somewhat surprising Cam Payne salary dump, the Suns opened up their 15th roster spot for Bol, who will be given a one-year, fully guaranteed deal, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. It’ll be for the veteran minimum, which makes sense for this type of low-risk, high-reward swing on youth and upside.

With that being said, there’s a reason the Orlando Magic decided to move on from Bol this summer, and as the 23-year-old transitions from a rebuilding franchise to a team with legitimate title aspirations, expectations should be tempered.

So what can Suns fans expect from their latest addition? Let’s dive into what makes Bol Bol so fun, where he needs to improve, and what his outlook should be on a Phoenix roster built to contend.

A tale of two Bols

It’s fitting his name is Bol Bol, almost as if each one contains its own half of the dichotomous nature to his game. There is no yin without yang, good without evil, or arena-rousing highlights without confounding decisions. For every monster dunk or brutal rejection (Bol), there seems to be a turnover or defensive lapse to counteract it (also Bol).

All things perfectly balanced, as if Bol were drawing from the Thanos playbook himself.

Bol’s 2022-23 campaign with the Magic embodied that juxtaposition perfectly. In his first season as a real rotation player, he averaged a respectable 9.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 21.5 minutes per game, shooting 54.6 percent from the floor.

However, after starting the year looking like a dark horse candidate for Most Improved Player, Bol’s season was unexpectedly derailed by health and safety protocols in early January.

“I think he contracted COVID and he came back,” former Orlando Sentinel writer Khobi Price told PHNX Sports. “Coming off the bench, he just wasn’t the same player after that.”

Bol’s numbers certainly back that assertion up:

  • Before COVID-19 (37 games): 12.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 26.1 MPG, 58.8 FG%
  • After COVID-19 (33 games): 5.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.8 BPG, 16.3 MPG, 46.7 FG%

He only missed two weeks, but before his absence, Bol shot 26-for-67 from 3-point range (38.8 percent). He made just four 3-pointers the rest of the season, shooting a putrid 8.7 percent from downtown after returning.

That dismal finish to the season tanked any chances he had of building a long-term partnership with the Magic, who waived him on July 4.

“The Magic are trying to take the next step in their development, individually as players, but also as a team cohesively,” Price said. “And there were moments where it just didn’t look like Bol was ready to take that next step with them.”

Much like his 2022-23 campaign, Bol’s game is divided into two distinct halves: the enticing flashes of potential, and the bouts of inconsistency that threaten to derail his career. Let’s start with the positives.

Bol Bol gets the people going

Bol Bol is a living, breathing, 7-foot-2 dose of serotonin. It’s impossible to see someone so tall, so lanky and so fluid-yet-simultaneously-clumsy-with-the-ball and not root for him. Forget the fact that he’s Manute Bol’s son or that he has an awesome name; Bol is an instant fan favorite wherever he goes for a reason.

He has a ways to go in proving himself as a legitimate rotation player on a good team, but when he’s been given opportunity, he typically rewards fans with the type of spectacle they’ve never seen from someone with his build.

“The upside, obviously Bol Bol brings a lot of excitement, especially in transition,” Price said. “That combination of size, length, handles, fluidity is something special. There’s a clip that always circulates, I think it was against the Hawks, a December game or around that time, he’s going in transition, between the legs, behind the back, he dunks, the entire bench is like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ Those are the kind of plays that just raise the energy of the building, raise the energy of the team.”

That Hawks play was a thing of beauty, and it certainly wasn’t the only gem from his collection last season:

These types of plays can be breathtaking to behold. Few 7-footers can corral a rebound, turn, gallop up the court like a giraffe-sized gazelle, throw in a few moves off the dribble and then finish in transition with authority.

Thanks to his height and jaw-dropping 7-foot-9 wingspan, Bol has no problem finishing over the top of people when he gets near the basket. He converted a staggering 83.2 percent of his shots at the rim, which ranked in the NBA’s 97th percentile, and according to The BBall Index, he also placed in the 79th percentile in contact finish rate.

Because of all that (or again, maybe just his size), rim protectors rarely challenged Bol Bol for dunks, lobs or dump-offs in the dunker spot. He was nearly automatic in converting those looks, but he also showed flashes of being able to create them for himself.

Bol has a surprisingly good handle for a 7-footer, incorporating crossovers, behind-the-back dribbles, between-the-legs hesitation moves, and spin moves to free himself up. His go-to when attacking the rim is a Euro-step where he brings the ball high above defenders’ heads on his gather, serving as a useful tool to get past his man or any help defenders collapsing on his drive:

Bol does well enough to put his lanky frame to good use in other areas too. As a screener, he placed in the 73rd percentile as the roll man in pick-and-rolls — and that was playing with Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony instead of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant.

He’s also active on the glass on both ends. He ranked in the 90th percentile in defensive rebounds per 75 possessions, but he was also in the 97th percentile in put-back impact per 75 possessions and 100th percentile in points per possession on put-backs.

Defensively, as one might expect from a center with that kind of length, Bol Bol managed to swat quite a few shots. Despite missing 12 games, he still recorded the 19th-most blocks in the league last season and ranked in the 94th percentile in blocks per 75 posssesions.

What he lacked in strength, Bol made up for in length and decent timing from the weak-side. He usually got a piece of the ball when he contested shots (97th percentile in block rate on contests), and he contested them fairly often around the basket (70th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions).

A lot of poor guys didn’t even see Bol coming, either thinking they could muscle their way into creating enough space for a shot or not seeing him lurking behind their primary defender, just waiting to elevate. If the Magic could recover the ball after one of Bol’s volleyball spikes, his blocks could quickly ignite the fast break:

When he wasn’t sneaking up on aspiring drivers from their blind spots, Bol was also determined to contest 3s on the perimeter. The BBall Index placed him in the 91st percentile in 3-point contests per 75 possessions, and it’s almost startling how many of his 85 blocks came from swatting jump shooters.

Just look at how quickly he closes the gap, leaving 3-point snipers and midrange operators equally stunned when their shot got sent out of bounds:

Highlights can make any player look good when they’re all strung up together. But it’s also fair to watch some of these electrifying plays and get excited about the prospect of having that kind of unique athlete come off the Suns bench.

Bol Bol still has a lot to work on

Watching Bol Bol play is like being on a roller coaster — or Bollercoaster, if you will. And just like the real ride, this one occasionally comes with a drop just when you get to the peak.

Simply put, the numbers aren’t kind to Bol’s actual impact on winning. It’s harder to gauge playing for a 34-win Orlando squad, and his bout with COVID-19 certainly didn’t help. But it’s slightly alarming that Bol’s total plus/minus of -146 was worse than every player on the roster except rookie Paolo Banchero at -215. And Banchero at least had the excuse of playing nearly 1,000 more minutes than Bol did.

A lot of the things Bol does well are counteracted by some other flaw. He’s a great finisher at the rim, but according to Cleaning The Glass, he took the majority of his shots from the midrange, only ranking in the 32nd percentile among centers in percentage of shots at the rim. He’s a delight to watch in transition at times, but he wasn’t as efficient as the highlights suggest, ranking in the 25th percentile in points per possession on the break.

Bol’s reliable when he gets put-back opportunities, but he could be even more of a weapon if he crashed more frequently (63rd percentile in offensive boards per 75 possessions). The same goes for the defensive end, where he’d be a menace on the glass if he were stronger (27th percentile in contested defensive rebounding percentage) and boxed out more (30th percentile in adjusted boxout rate).

Bol’s shooting stroke looks decent enough for a 7-footer, but his dismal finish to the year echoed with the inconsistency he’s shown throughout his four-year NBA career. He shot just 26.5 percent from 3-point range last season, including 27.3 percent on catch-and-shoot looks and 17.9 percent from the corners.

His greatest flaw on the offensive end, however, might be the exact thing that occasionally puts him in highlight reels: An overly confident handle that can get him into trouble.

A giraffe-sized gazelle would be a wondrous thing to see in nature, but you’d better believe it would attract its fair share of predators. That’s exactly what happens when defenders see Bol start palming the ball, and sometimes he gets so caught up in pulling off some ambitious move that he doesn’t feel the defense swarming to pick his pocket.

Bol’s got an impressive handle for a guy his size, but that doesn’t mean he’s a point center by any means. Because of his sheer size and lankiness, he’s often unable to position his body between the ball in his hand and smaller, stronger defenders that can get up into his personal space. If they supply enough contact to disrupt his center of gravity, Bol can get thrown off-balance and the ball is quickly dislodged.

His handle simply needs to get tighter if he’s going to try and pull off some of the razzle-dazzle he’s going for, because in some cases, he simply loses the ball for little reason. The most common occurrences came when Bol tried to give his guards a dribble hand-off, or whenever he attempted his overhead gather on the run.

It wasn’t just ball-handling turnovers, however, because Bol made some truly confounding passes too. You can see the logic behind a few of them, with the read coming just a second too late. But some of these passes are just comically off-target or ill-advised:

Bol is almost allergic to making a solid, two-handed pass. Nearly everything comes from a one-handed zip pass off the dribble, almost like he’s fixated on showing he can make those plays like a guard.

Unfortunately, as often as he seems to handle the ball, he’s nowhere near secure enough with it yet. Bol committed 112 turnovers to just 69 assists last season, giving him a 0.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. He ranked in the 20th percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and at this point, he still needs to work on a few fundamentals.

“There was a lot of times that he would catch a ball and try to attack and he would either travel or step out of bounds,” Price explained. “So just some technique things he needs to clean up, maybe a couple of focus things.”

The Suns don’t need Bol in some sort of ball-handling, playmaking role, but it’d be nice if he could attack closeouts without turning the ball over. More importantly, he needs to be active by crashing the offensive glass, running in transition and being solid defensively.

The first two are easy enough, but that last part may be a bit tricky. That’s because, as much as Bol Bol is a committed shot-blocker, he’s still a liability on defense. Opponents routinely targeted Bol with switches or by running actions his way, not only because they sometimes left him stumped, but also because he was prone to getting burned on the perimeter.

According to The BBall Index, Bol ranked in the first percentile in perimeter defense, as well as the fourth percentile in ball-screen navigation and the 16th percentile in deflections per 75 possessions. Those numbers are atrocious. Whenever Bol sees the floor, defenses will find ways to make him work and make him think, regardless of his raw wingspan and shot-blocking numbers.

That’s a concern, especially since opponents actually shot a slightly better percentage against Bol Bol at the rim than they normally would. He only ranked in the 51st percentile in rim defensive field goal percentage vs. expected last season, with his opponents shooting one percent better against him.

All aboard the Bollercoaster

Some people love the thrill of a good roller coaster. Others are sickened by the unexpected lurches and sudden changes in inertia that can happen in an instant.

Watching Bol Bol play for the Suns may provide a similar sensation, complete with all the same highs and lows. The drawback is on this particular team, he may have limited opportunities to prove himself. One season as an actual rotation player on a losing team may not have afforded him enough chances to learn from his miscues.

“That’s a team looking to win the championship, and how much of a consistent role can you give a player who needs more time to iron out the kinks in their game, may not be there defensively from day one and need to work on that?” Price said of Phoenix. “Obviously Bol’s going to work in the summer on his game, but he’s gonna need to play through mistakes, and I just don’t know how many mistakes that Suns can afford for him to play through.”

There’s no question watching Bol Bol eat up late-game minutes will spark joy, especially when he pulls off some crazy move off the bounce and dunks on somebody in transition. The real question is whether he can impact winning by mastering the type of high-risk, head-scratching plays that delight when they work and confound when they don’t.

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