Deconstructing the Unicorn: Why Bol Bol Might be the 2019 Draft’s Biggest Gamble

With apologies to Kristaps Porzingis, you’re not the only one sick of hearing basketball players labeled as “unicorns.” There is some value and truth to the usage of the term as a means of expressing the sentiment “I’ve never seen anyone with those specific physical traits play basketball in this particular way before.” By that definition, unicorns can take on all shapes and sizes, and Boban Marjanovic is as much a unicorn as Nate Robinson. That’s an acceptable designation that can be applied responsibly, one, which helps avoid the trap of creating expectations. With that established, Bol Bol, Oregon’s skilled 7’3” freshman and likely one-and-done for the 2019 NBA draft, is absolutely a unicorn. And for a talented-but-flawed prospect who is already one of the more divisive names among executives, scouts and the general public, this is where we should begin the discussion.

Where the value of labeling a player a unicorn has run aground, with the advent of statistically prolific, oversized ball-handlers like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and LeBron James before them, is that it’s often conflated with a separate assumption: “this basketball player is a superstar.” That’s totally understandable, because it’s a designation that’s most often applied only after a player has established his ability to dominate a game at the NBA level. Giannis wasn’t a unicorn when he averaged 6.8 points per game as a 19-year-old rookie. Nobody leapt to crown Kristaps Porzingis until he’d shown he could wow a crowd at Madison Square Garden on the regular. So when applied in the most common sense, “unicorn” points to a specific type of greatness that players who fulfill our previously stated criteria (unusual athletic gifts combined with unique playstyle) have earned.

For all his merits, Bol has played four college basketball games, in which his performances have varied from average to great. Bol had some quality moments, but played an inarguably poor second half on Thursday in a loss to Iowa, posting 14 points, seven rebounds and five blocks at Madison Square Garden. Bol turned 19 on Friday, and turned in a much stronger showing (26 points, nine rebounds and four blocks) as Oregon bounced back to roll a ranked Syracuse team. After his first pair of games against high major competition, we know more or less what Bol is for the time being: as long as the effort level persists, his natural talent will make him a productive college player, and his upside should help find him a seat in the green room in June.  

- Icon Sportswire via AP Images
Icon Sportswire via AP Images

There is obvious baseline value to being enormous (Bol has a 7’8” wingspan), being able to move your feet and displaying shot-blocking instincts. Bol has also demonstrated some skill shooting from range off the dribble and with his feet set. The central challenge with any NBA prospect at any level is projecting their skill set forward, as the competition improves and opposing players get stronger, quicker and smarter. In Bol’s case, the questions caused by some of the fundamental holes in his previously-unseen game will be more or less impossible to answer until he arrives in the NBA.For now, he is a unicorn by our basic definition only—a unique, promising talent capable of athletic feats that simply look different on the court. But to belong in the second group with Antetokounmpo, Porzingis (to whom he’s been unfairly compared) and others, Bol has to first prove his game can translate.

With the advent of the internet, the average basketball fan has become privy to the jaw-dropping feats of teenage players. With that comes inflated perceptions, but also a tendency to gloss over the hard truths that accompany scouting them in person, for better or worse. For every Zion Williamson (by our simple definition, a unicorn), who’s needed little time at Duke to show he’s clearly better than his dunk reels portended, there’s a Seventh Woods (decidedly not a unicorn), who’s playing just 15 minutes per game as a junior at North Carolina. Thanks to YouTube, much attention has been paid to Bol’s floor-stretching potential and uncommon acts of ballhandling. With repeat viewings, the truth is that the crux of his future value may actually hinge on his defensive development.

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Based on what we’ve seen from him already, it’s fair to expect that Bol’s shot-blocking prowess should carry over as an NBA skill in good-to-great fashion. There’s a great chance he leads college basketball in blocked shots simply by force of habit. There was an eye-popping early first-half stretch against Iowa in which he seemed to erase or contest nearly every Hawkeyes shot for approximately five minutes. In that timespan, the Ducks still couldn’t climb back into the game, conceding layups and easy baskets and falling behind by nine. Oregon’s overall defensive approach was disorganized, and the rest of the night underscored some of Bol’s weaknesses. He doesn’t appear move well enough laterally that he can be expected to corral pick-and-roll in a plus capacity. To be fair most NBA centers still can’t be consistently expected to switch a ball screen, but Bol doesn’t fall into the category of Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson or Marvin Bagley, all top-five picks in the 2018 draft, when it comes to agility.

Oregon has tried to hide some of Bol’s deficiencies by placing him in the center of a matchup zone that tucks Kenny Wooten, who covers ground and defends the basket like a ballistic missile, along the baseline to cover for mistakes. Bol’s responsibilities in that context were to erase the opponent’s ability to play through the middle, use his length to dissuade the mid-range, and drop to the baseline when the ball was swung into a corner. Bol has shown promising instincts contesting jumpers, helping on drives from the opposite block and when opponents dribble in his direction, which are all nice positives. But in the NBA, other teams will focus on spreading him out and forcing him to make quick decisions in coverage. He will have to stay sharper than he was at Madison Square Garden this week, when he repeatedly missed defensive rotations and left shooters open in the corners. A reputation for inconsistent effort plagued Bol at the high school level, and continuing to play hard would go a long way toward convincing teams he can keep up in the wide-open pro game. Teams will need to be sold that he’s willing to put in the work.

It obviously helps that Bol does have quite a bit more going for him offensively than your typical 7-foot big. He has soft touch with his right hand, can knock down 18-footers with his feet set, and his range does stretch beyond the arc (he made 48.9% of his threes in his final season in the Nike EYBL, although the value of that number in AAU competition is debatable). He can handle the ball when unharried in the open floor, but that skill is unlikely to translate in substantial fashion given his size and gait. Against Syracuse, he threw a number of quality passes turning and facing from around the free throw line, where his skill set seems to play best. “You just can’t stick him inside, because with his physical stature he’ll get beat up. So you gotta move him around, flash him into the post and let him use some of that skill level,” Altman added after Friday’s game.  “I encourage him to shoot that three as long as he’s working hard in practice on it, because he’s got a good touch. That creates so many problems when a big guy like that can step out and hit a three and let you go five wide.”

As Altman noted, perhaps the most critical element in trying to project Bol’s baseline for success on either side of the ball is his body type, which is uncannily similar to that of his father. Manute Bol lasted in the NBA for a decade as a defensive specialist and beloved role player while averaged 3.3 blocks, but just 2.6 points per game. The younger Bol will enter the league with the same slender shoulders and spindly legs that made his father’s strengths and weaknesses so pronounced. The requirements for an NBA center were also was much different in the 1980s and 1990s—slow-footed giants like Marjanovic, who at 7’3” is the tallest active NBA center, are surviving as useful role players in today’s game, but as exceptions to the norm (even after his strong run of play to open the season, the Clippers had won four straight games entering Tuesday after burying Boban on the bench). Porzingis also stands 7’3”, but moves with a rare fluidity and coordination, defends and scores with enough efficiency to play a starring role. The scary thing with Bol is how difficult it might be for him to fall somewhere in between.

- Elsa/Getty Images
Elsa/Getty Images

Hanging over Bol’s entire case study is an NBA that has largely moved away from running offense through the post. According to NBA.com’s shot-tracking data, in the 2013-14 season (when the league began keeping such stats), there were 15 players who averaged eight or more post-up touches per game. In the seasons that followed that number dwindled to 12, then 10, then seven, and six in 2017-18. Through a month or so of games this season, that group consists of six players: LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Enes Kanter. All five are supremely skilled players who blend footwork, strength and can turn to face the basket, play with their back to it, and pass effectively out of double-teams. Conversely, there are 16 players receiving eight or more “paint touches” (designated as the number of times a player receives the ball inside the paint), the most since 2013–14. That category is led by centers like Steven Adams, Andre Drummond, Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela, powerful athletes who are constant threats to catch lobs and finish layups.

Given his physical limitations, it’s possible Bol falls into neither category. “We have to get him stronger,” admitted Oregon coach Dana Altman. “He’s gotta play the game more as an athlete rather than straight up and down. Everything seems to be moving a lot faster, and the game seems to be more physical for him now. He’s gotta play lower…going straight up and down, everyone pushes him around.” His numbers may well look gaudy at the end of the year, noting how easily the college game has come to him thus far, but the catch is that much of what he’s doing as a scorer at the college level has been predicated on having space to operate. There are clear physical inhibitors to his post play: his moves infrequently carve out space, as he favors using his height to hoist jump hooks and the unusual height of his hips makes it difficult for him to use his lower body and feet to generate any leverage. As Altman said, Bol more or less plays a vertical game, which is more conducive to face-up play, which might be an ideal offensive role to maximize his talent.

Still, after repeat viewings in high school and college, Bol has not shown a natural ability to attack a set defense with one or two dribbles, preferring to shoot over them or pass—when he puts it on the floor in traffic, his height leaves the ball susceptible to opportunistic defenders. His jump shot is a threat, but features a low pocket that players his size can more easily contest. He will have to work to be ruthlessly efficient in the high post and as a ball screener to survive. Oregon is working to better incorporate Bol into their offense, and there is obviously some room for improvement. “It’s a challenge for us to find [situations where] we can take advantage of his uniqueness, Altman said. “And it will continue to be a challenge because defenses will start really trying to get under him, push him around, be physical and really try to get him off his game. He’s gotta be ready for stuff like that.”

For now, when the Ducks aren’t running play through him, Bol has tended to float into the corner or baseline and out of the fray — which can mean he disappears from the game for extended periods of time. Much of his success is based on being able to utilize length, which allows him to put back errant rebounds, reach over smaller defenders and loft up shots. When smaller players establish position and their weight into him, Bol is not especially difficult to box out, nor does he fight particularly hard for balls that carom out of his immediate area. He managed just four defensive rebounds to five offensive ones in each of the Syracuse and Iowa games, and most of the later weren’t hustle-based plays. There have been moments where Bol seems content to ball-watch, rather than mix it up inside, and he does not have particularly soft hands catching lobs or corralling difficult boards in traffic.

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Being that the traditional post-up is an efficient shot for so few players, and given the legitimate concerns as to how effective Bol can be on offense without being spoon-fed (according to KenPom, he’s taking 35.9% of Oregon’s shots when he’s on the floor), it’s fair to wonder where a median expected outcome might fall. “At what point will he be worth using creatively?” one Western Conference executive wondered. We can’t rightfully expect every player to maximize his potential, much less one followed by legitimate questions surrounding his work ethic that date back to his high school days. That doesn’t mean Bol can’t or won’t be effective, but a quick glance around the league at the types of 7-foot athletes who can stay on the floor for 30 minutes per game points to an extremely high baseline level of play for him to become something more than a rotation piece. More than anything, the average modern center has to understand his role, provide some level of versatile defensive cover, and find ways to be effective without clock-killing, inefficient post touches. It’s nice that Bol can handle and shoot, but if those skills aren’t applicable to his success, there will be major room for skepticism early in his career.

In conversations with NBA evaluators, questions about Bol’s physical adjustment and attitude questions tend to precede breathless talk of his rim protection or offensive skills. His shot-blocking prowess and floor-spacing potential is tantalizing, but bottom line, Bol will have to be able to stay on the floor to make the sort of impact that would warrant a lottery selection, much less a starting role. (“His holes have holes,” another executive offered.) None of the bigs selected atop the 2017 draft came into the league accompanied by physically-based question marks quite as intrinsic to their success.  Due to his sheer height advantage, Bol will not face many opponents who can effectively contest his takes at the college level. We simply won’t know if he can add significant strength to his lithe body, or if he will be anywhere near as effective, when matched up with athletic NBA bigs who can push him around. What we do know is that it’s exceedingly difficult for a player his size to succeed as a starter in the current league climate, no matter how skilled. 

There’s a lot of season left, but come spring, teams will have to look at Bol’s numbers, factor in the risks, decide how much they believe in his ability to improve, and determine exactly what parts of his game they can translate into something of value. The draft is still seven months away, and there will be a point where a team decides the potential reward is worth a dice-roll. College basketball hasn’t seen a player quite like Bol before, and we’ll enjoy watching him while he’s around. But from a projection standpoint, NBA teams will have to wonder if what makes the unicorn special might actually be part of the problem.

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