Dampens expectations for newly acquired Bol Bol

There is a lot of excitement surrounding new Phoenix Suns big man Bol Bol. And why not? He is 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 tailored for the current version of NBA basketball. He is a shockingly good ball handler considering 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 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, he was a sight to behold when he came to town.

So, yes, the excitement of bringing Bol Bol to the Sun is valid. He is unique. He possesses one ability that you cannot learn: height. He possesses enticing physical tools as well as a special skill set. I’m also interested to see what he does to impact the game and how he does it. I also temper my expectations as there are reasons behind the challenges he has faced as a professional.

When Bol Bol signed with the Phoenix Suns last week, the fan base rejoiced. This signature seemed to some to be the trigger. This is the transaction that put the Suns’ summer over the top and into the off-season general manager hall of fame. Who needs Eric Gordon, we’ve got Bol freakin’ Bol!

Unfairly, the media posted photos of Bol photoshopped into 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 return to reality, 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 it is due to injuries. In his four years in the NBA, he has played in 123 of 305 regular season games, missing time with several foot injuries. This has hampered his ability to mature and become a reliable NBA player, and those two words – “foot injury” – are very concerning when you’re 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 get playing time and make an impact. if he could stay healthy. Outside of a spat with COVID in January, that’s exactly what Bol did. He had the 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 developing players left and right, the Magic waived him and the $2.2 million he is slated to make this season.

Why? He averaged career-highs 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 reinvest in the talented bigs?

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

As Bol played better and better, however, Magic began to lose 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 were not. Jalen Suggs missed 23 games, rookie Paolo Banchero missed 7 and Cole Anthony missed 18. The team was 13-24 when 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 reduced to 17.4 minutes, February was 16.3, and in March, Bol Bol averaged just 12.3 minutes a night. Orlando wanted to change direction, and that direction was away from Bol. He just didn’t stand a chance, did he? Or did he and Orlando not like what they saw and/or understood how it would fit with their vision?

From an eye test point of view, there is enough to be concerned about in relation to Bol. The YouTube highlights show some fluid in transition with elite ball-handling skills, and because of his length, he’s unprotected around the cylinder. Just watch the video below from last season. Euro-step putbacks, transition slam dunks, aggressive putbacks. He has some of those skills in the bag.

However, these highlights represent about 9 minutes of Bol Bol’s 1,505 minutes played. The video is of Bol at his peak. It doesn’t show the weaknesses he shows with regularity.

As the season progressed and opposing defenses had more film on how Bol wanted to navigate, they game-planned for him. And it hurt his ability to be productive. He may 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 shots in the mid lane. Push him off the scene and his effectiveness dropped. Swipe for the ball and turnover would occur.

You would think with his size that his defensive prowess would be a reason to play him. While he had 1.2 blocks per game last season, we didn’t experience the gameplay behind the stats. Bol would go in search of blocks and thus make up the defense behind him. According to the B-Ball Index, Bol was awarded a D+ in the 34% tile on rim deterrence and in the 39% tile in rim protection. He gets lost easily, and the effort starts to come into question.

It doesn’t get any better in the area either. His perimeter defense on the ball is in the 1% tile, an F and the worst in the league. Passing the lane defense? 17% tiles. F. Ball screen navigation? You can see where this is going. 4% tiles. F. He is big, but he is 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 is the worst of both worlds.

Remember that 52% from deep for the Ducks I mentioned above? It was a total of 25 attempts. He played in only 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 the attitude discussion. It has been rumored that Bol does not want to excel as a basketball player. He plays because he is 7’2”, not because he loves to do it. Bol himself admitted that “I feel like I could have worked a lot harder,” when he plays in Denver, and he has a reputation for being disengaged when he’s not playing.

When it comes to Bol Bol, there’s plenty to be excited about. I don’t like to use the term “unicorn” often, but he might 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 steps into the Suns’ elite rotation and dominates. That he will be, as Bleacher Report photoshopped above, the fourth best player on the team. Would that be nice? Of course. But open there goes gravity.

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