Physical anomalies are always some of the most interesting players in the NBA Draft. The league is full of players who have weird or outlandish physical traits that enhance or limit their abilities on the court, and these are often the first things that stick out to us. Everything from JaVale McGee’s 7-foot-7 wingspan, to Aaron Gordon’s vertical leap, to Semi Ojeleye’s gigantic biceps can be an asset on the floor, while things like Kelly Olynyk’s negative wingspan and Zhou Qi’s wispy frame can be things that keep a player locked in a specific role.
Look at a list of 2019 NBA Draft prospects, and one guy’s measurements jump out as an immediate outlier — Oregon center Bol Bol. He’s 7-foot-3. He has a 7-foot-8 wingspan. And he might weigh 235 pounds soaking wet. That’s not as oddball as his father Manute – but it’s pretty rare, especially when you pair it with his skill set.
Bol is this year’s attempt at the so-called “unicorn big” — a rim-protecting 5 with quality ball-skills that can captain a defense and be a top-three option for an offense. The rim protection potential is obvious — see, 7-foot-8 wingspan — but he should have real offensive value due to his shooting potential.
Bol has a nice looking jumper despite some major funk in his mechanics. Because of his long arms, Bol has to cock the ball back towards his shoulder to get a good shooting angle, and this can make his release somewhat slow.
While he hit just 5-of-23 3s as a senior at Mater Dei last season, Bol’s shown good progress as a shooter to date. He looked strong from the corner in the Jordan Brand Classic, and he’s shown some impressive potential as an off-the-dribble shooter. His production to date isn’t great, but his there’s the bones of a high ceiling as a shooter at the five.
Bol’s shooting is his ultimate offensive swing skill, similar to how Mohamed Bamba’s shooting was a difference-maker in his pre-draft projection. Any super-long 5 that can shoot has a better shot at being a good offensive player in the NBA than one that can’t, because it adds diversity to their primary role as a vertical spacer in the pick-and-roll.
As far as that goes, Bol is a mixed bag. On one hand, he lacks the strength to be an elite finisher, and while his length extension will help him against contact, he’s not the leaper that Tyson Chandler or Rudy Gobert, other super-long elite dive men, are. There’s also some question about his acceleration towards the rim — Bol can look at times like he’s operating in slow motion, even on high school tape.
Those are some pretty big roadblocks, but Bol does have methods of compensating that should help him grade out as at least a useful finisher by year’s end. Bol’s hands are really good in traffic, and that’s a great tool for helping minimize whatever athletic questions he has here. Gathering isn’t a problem for him and helps him leverage tight spaces and tough angles into good looks thanks to his burgeoning craft around the basket.
He’s also a solid screen-setter, though he has inconsistencies. His technique in setting himself with a wide base and engaging the defender is refreshing after last year’s big man class where this was sorely lacking.
Defensively, we’re probably going to have to wait until Bol’s body physically matures before we can make a good determination of his value as a rim protector. At this point, he’s far too thin to stand up to NBA competition at the rim and needs to add strength to even be passable. Doubts about his ability to do this are valid given his father’s thin frame, but there’s a baseline of talent here. One of the best things you can do if you’re giving up a size advantage at the rim is to avoid fouling on a contest by contorting your body away from contact. Al Horford is great at this, and while he has a completely different body type than Bol, this is something Bol shows great potential at.
Bol also shows good footwork in pick-and-roll coverage, especially drop coverage, which he played a lot of at the Jordan Brand Classic. He can contain well with his length, and he’s surprisingly adept at changing directions and mirroring a ball-handler. Perimeter skills are going to become even more valuable as the league gets smaller, and that’s an area where Bol will hopefully get some time, especially next to Kenny Wooten at Oregon.
Like with Bamba, it’s pretty easy to see a path to high-level rim protection at the NBA level with Bol. But, at the same time, there are larger questions that limit him beyond physical frame, that get at the biggest question Bol still has to answer. Much like with some of the other prospects in the top 5, Bol’s biggest recurrent challenge has been discipline and effort. But unlike with Cameron Reddish or Zion Williamson, Bol’s issues are far more common, far more pronounced, and far more likely to inhibit effective play at the NBA level.
There are a few major issues for Bol in particular. The first comes on closeouts, where he has admittedly never needed much discipline to be effective (See: wingspan the length of a compact car). That’s going to change at the next level, and his typical lazy contests won’t cut it.
Bol also has issues with finishing plays that are likely to plague him at the college level. Bol often will give up on a play if he doesn’t have a shot at a block, and he can easily get beat by cutters to the rim because he doesn’t anticipate well. He also really struggles on the glass with missed box outs, compounding the disadvantage his high center of gravity creates.
This effort issue can manifest on the offensive end, as well. He doesn’t always roll hard to the rim, and can break the offense at times trying to isolate against a defender. Individually, this is a list of common bad habits that young players can grow out of. But together, it makes it difficult to confidently project him towards his ceiling outcome, because it’s likely that a few of these issues linger in the NBA even if he does get better at some of them.
More than anything, Bol has to prove that he can engage on a more consistent level in college than he did in high school. All of that talent and those potential guard skills are great, but if he’s not willing to play in a way that contributes to winning basketball, it will be hard to say that he’s a deserving top-five pick investment. The hope is that a lot of his bad habits were situation-dependent, and that good coaching from Dana Altman can help get him pointed in the right direction. Playing within a more structured defensive system should help, but it’s not a given, either.
Bol’s talent is immense, and the slim shot that he can become that unicorn big is worth a top-five placement in initial rankings for this season. However, that slack will quickly drop if he can’t show improvement in his effort level and understanding of defensive schemes at the college level. How he adapts will be one of the biggest storylines of the 2019 NBA Draft class. If he can make progress, his presence could suddenly give the class a burst of star power. If not, though, he’s the highest-risk prospect in the class.