SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Somewhere deep within Bol Bol there is an unstoppable force. He has been trying to find a way to unleash it throughout his prep career. It appears he may have found it in Findlay Prep’s (Henderson, Nev.) 91-47 win over Immaculate Conception.
The Oregon commit had a Dr. Jekyll first half and a bit of a Mr. Hyde second half, with some sort of metamorphosis of physicality and intensity occurring during halftime. He finished with 32 points, on 14-for-17 shooting, in just 21 minutes. For Bol, game day appears to be a long thaw to being the game-breaking player he could become, but Sunday showed a new level that has hardly been seen from him.
Bol warms up in the game at a glacial pace. He only does the pregame calisthenics the rest of the team is doing at half the dexterity and speed. He looks relaxed and playful, even as he grabs at his side during stretches. He seems to be missing the limber body flexibility that most basketball players have, something fairly common for players of his extreme height. To start off the game, he gently trots down the floor as the pace of play zooms by. But he somehow ends up in the thick of things by the time the play reaches its consummation.
Even if he trails behind, he is just long enough and just present enough to still be there to affect the shot when it goes up. But he eventually showed that he can accomplish far beyond just being there. He can control the whole environment of the game.
A SURPRISINGLY COMPLEX OFFENSIVE GAME
Early in the first quarter, Immaculate’s offensive game plan was working perfectly to neutralize his threat. They were trying to keep him in transition or glued to the weak side block. When they would drive the opposite lane, he was too slow to react. If he jumped out high to cut off a drive coming his way on the baseline, the ball handler could slip around him to find space on the other side of the rim. It was less of an issue of being disengaged and more a concern that he didn’t have the agility to react in real-time.
Then everything changed when he finally got his hands on the ball and threw down a massive slam. Suddenly the beast within had awakened. He began to move with more fluidity and purpose on both ends and felt the confidence to break out the more of his diverse skill set. Suddenly the sleeping giant was a terror all over the floor.
This is the crux of Bol’s potential. He has a narrow but incomprehensibly long body. He doesn’t have much muscle and has a more upright posture that can allow him to get pushed around. But he has the capability to fight back by locking in and playing with passion. When he pulled that out from within himself, he went from catching up to the play to driving it forward. With his size at the prep level, if he is an active force within the action, he completely overshadows everything the opponent tries to accomplish on both ends.
Offensively, he can get off a jump hook or awkward-angle layup from pretty much anywhere within 10 feet of the basket. Even when he is stationary in a back-to-the-basket post-up and his high center of gravity works against him to get through the defender, he can drop step into a fadeaway which is incontestable. Even at higher competition levels, his length and relative fluidity with this move should allow it to be a go-to for him to get his offense going.
The bigger challenge in the post is his leverage, something he is working to improve as he prepares to play for Oregon next season. When he became engaged in the second half, he was able to win post position almost whenever he wanted it. His footwork is sufficient for him to be a terror in the low post. Even if his post game is limited to rip throughs and drop steps at this point, his size forces teams to double him. Even when he gets hacked, he can finish with a floater, half hook or even still throw it down as he did late in the win.
“Probably like my sophomore year is when I got that down,” Bol said. “I think I got a lot better and I’ve just been practicing ever since.”
Bol prides himself on being part of a new generation of bigs that can play the game outside-in. Players like Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis have shown how centers can be utilized as ball handling scorers on the perimeter who can also live from the block. Bol is one of a number of players at Hoophall who can excel in both phases.
He can spot up from three and spread the floor. That’s only as good as your shot for most centers, something that is not an issue for him at this point. He shot 48.9-percent from three on the 2017 Nike EYBL circuit, but his low set point below his chin could become an issue as he progresses to higher levels and faces more 7-footers. There’s no need to make a change at this point. A giant center who is a reliable three-point shooter is insanely valuable and it’s a dangerous game to try to mess with that.
But he is much more capable than simply spotting up. He already can play like a wing, going to a few dribble moves and showing the potential to drive and kick. This would allow him to reach a unicorn status where he can play the five and still function within an NBA motion offense. That is the true reason why he is ranked No. 4 in the nation. It’s the fact that he had a play from each corner where he attacked a closeout with a hesitation pull-up jimbo, channeling his inner-Durant. He can use both hands on the perimeter and these small spurts of wing skill are what hints to those considering drafting him in 2019 that there are many layers to peel on the onion of his enormous potential.
When he’s trailing in transition, he can come in to crash a stalling fast break. In the second quarter, he came down trailing on the break and caught the kick out pass. As the defender closed out on him, he up-faked and then pulled out a nice dribble move to step into a 15-footer. Although it rimmed out, he read how he wanted to attack the close out early and pulled off the move comfortably.
Even more surprising was when Findlay went to its twin tower lineup in the first half with 7-3 center Connor Vannover. Bol was able to work a high-low game with him and even served as the ball-handler in a couple of pick-and-roll actions. This is where the unicorn truly becomes mythical.
When USA TODAY asked Bol when he first started to develop these skills, he stopped and thought for a moment.
“I really don’t know to be honest. When I was younger, I started playing outside first and then going in. That helped me because now I can be able to go inside and outside.”
He’s still trying to get further and further in. He’s made progress over the past year, but it’s clear there is still plenty of room to grow. He can shoot over anyone and can finish any time he has a lane within 12 feet. Right now his opportunities come fairly easily.
Next year, he’ll be facing centers closer to his size with even more power that can shove him off the block, so he’ll need to get lower and embrace more contact. How he responds to the challenge of the NCAA level will reveal just how much momentum he’ll have toward fulfilling his potential.
THE INCREDIBLE DEFENSIVE POTENTIAL
Consequently, this has made him a much more effective perimeter defender. Immaculate rarely put him in the pick-and-roll, but there was one occasion where their star guard Jalen Carey was able to catch him out on a switch. Bol took on the switch from the side pick-and-roll and had a one-on-one at the top of the key. He got lower in his stance and backed off an extra step, knowing Carey would go into a crossover pull-up and Bol could close the gap with his length. When Carey hit him with the move and went into his shot, Bol slid up perfectly to get his hand in front of the ball and force a miss.
“Yeah definitely, [my length] helps a lot,” Bol said. “Cause like, they don’t try to go to the basket, but neither does [the] help side [offensive player], so I can lean back a little bit because my arms are so long.”
But when he is down low, players with more beef and a lower center of gravity can move him if they know how to time it right. Because of his high center of gravity, he can easily be moved off the spot when he’s focused on perimeter action and isn’t ready for contact.
“It’s like really physical,” Bol said. “Some guys who push me really far, it’s just about spacing and knowing where you are. That’s like really hard to learn.”
It’s the biggest adjustment he needs to thrive at the highest level. Bol said his perimeter skill evolved out of two motivations: A typical contemporary kid enamored with the three-pointer and a growing giant playing against competition much older than him.
“I was playing like two grades higher, so I was just scared to go inside when I was younger. Cause I was scared to get hit. That’s why I shot outside.”
That intimidation factor is still apparent in his game. He shies away from contact and struggled to fight back against it until he truly played angry in the second half. There are unmistakable parallels to his father Manute, who was both the tallest player in NBA history at 7’7” yet was primarily a finesse player who relied on his deep shot. So many of the question marks Bol Bol has to answer are to overcome the limitations his late father had during his playing days.
But he can overcome these weaknesses by increasing intensity and physicality. His motor looked like it was stuck in second gear in the first quarter, but he was able to run through the gear box as the game went on. That helps mitigate the vulnerability of his height and build, but he still can be too passive for his own good. He only registered two rebounds – although several of us on press row agreed he probably had a few more that weren’t counted – but altered or completely discouraged a handful of shots. His raw physicality is not yet a strength, but there are few players in his class who can elevate to impact the game at his level.
Deep inside the quiet and unassuming giant is the type of monster that dominates at the NBA level. The biggest question is whether he can wake up that beast every time he hits the floor.