It’s A Great Time To Enjoy Bol Bol
4:34 PM EDT on November 2, 2022
If you have ever developed any serious takes about notably shaped basketball prospects, you have doubtless had your heart broken when the vast majority of them turn out not to be good enough at basketball to make use of their physical potential. The road to Giannis Antetokounmpo becoming the best player in the NBA is littered with Bruno Caboclos, Tacko Falls, Sekou Doumbouyas, and, on the opposite pole, Tyler Ulises bouncing after a cup of coffee. I always want to believe that players with unorthodox bodies can make it work at the highest level, because what is the point of caring about a sport if not marveling at the frontiers of physical possibility? For the first three, desolate years of his career, Bol Bol seemed destined to wind up as one of those aforementioned guys, which makes his breakout 2022-23 season that much more delightful.
Bol, the son of Manute Bol, had a significantly higher pedigree than most of the Caboclo cohort. He was a big-time college recruit and presumptive 2019 lottery pick, because he stands 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8 wingspan (weighing at a Pokuševskian 220 pounds) and appeared to be able to shoot the three at a reasonable rate. The theory with Bol was pretty simple: He would be able to contribute to an NBA team by blocking shots and hitting threes, without ever needing to develop the connective tissue of his game. The ligaments and tendons of a game obviously matter, though they are of less acute import when you can complete the most important single tasks on both ends of the court more or less without quarrel. Unfortunately, Bol played just nine (admittedly, incredible) games with Oregon before breaking his left foot. The record of big guys with foot injuries is famously rotten, so he slid all the way to 44th in the draft, where he was selected by the Nuggets.
His Denver career didn't add up to anything. Faced with a long developmental track and championship ambitions that required Denver to play actually good, useful players, Bol languished. He played 87 minutes across seven games in his rookie year, 160 across 32 in his sophomore season, then 80 in 14 during his third season, before hurting his right foot, an injury that prompted the Detroit Pistons to void an agreed-upon trade for him. It seemed that would be that for Bol. There are precious few minutes to go around for waifish seven-footers with a pair of broken feet, especially when they haven't shown much of anything on the court in three seasons. The brutal thing about the fringes of the NBA is that there are dozens of players, players with presumably functional feet, doing everything they can take your spot. Three years is a long time for a guy to give you nothing, whether you want to want to win the title or not. As recently as this calendar year, it seemed highly unlikely that Bol Bol might ever be a rotation player. After the Detroit trade vanished, he was flipped twice, to Boston, then to Orlando, where he would have to prove his worth. There was no evidence before this season that he could do anything on an NBA court.
Instead, he's thriving in Orlando, a franchise that's made itself a sanctuary for lanky, perhaps limited 7-footers, as well as once-shiny prospects in need of a second chance. The Magic are not, well, good in any sense, though there is a lot to like about the way they're put together. Markelle Fultz is making something of himself, Wendell Carter is hooping at a higher level than it seemed he was capable of after a bad rookie year, Franz Wagner is running around and doing stuff, and Paolo Banchero already seems like he's been in the league for eight years, not eight games. Also, there is Bol, who has already logged more than half as many minutes in eight games with Orlando as he did in three seasons with Denver. Given an opportunity and a role within a coherent system, he has been playing with an undeniable sense of confidence. Bol has an NBA-leading 21 blocks, and he's putting up 11.1 points per contest on some impressive shooting numbers. He gets a lot of his work done in transition, which is a real treat to watch. Bol's skinniness is the first thing one notices about him, and it's pronounced when he's moving in space. He looks like a colt, legs impossibly long, moving with just enough coordination to get himself into good positions. My favorite Bol highlights are his drives, where he gets knocked off course by the slightest bump and then has to finish from a weird angle.
My other favorite genre of highlight features his blocks. Bol has good timing, even though he doesn't need to, because, again, he has a 7-foot-8 wingspan. He put together a nice game in a loss to the Thunder on Tuesday, a loss that featured him sharing the court with fellow notable body-inhabiter Aleksej Pokuševski.
Even players like Luka Doncic, with an uncanny understanding of space, struggle to escape.
The final highlight, if you'll indulge me, reminds me of Victor Wembanyama. Very few big men can swallow this much space this quickly and spike a three-point attempt like a volleyball.
The Magic's backcourt has been obliterated by injuries, so Bol is currently starting alongside both Wagner and Banchero. It's working, in part because Bol has shown he can do more than be tall. "I feel like every game I've gotten better," Bol said last week. "The game is starting to slow down."
"We talk about the size and length that he possesses, but also the basketball IQ," Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said. "So his ability to make plays down the stretch, he creates matchup problems, and his ability to protect at the rim."
It's a good time to enjoy some Bol Bol basketball, since the vibes in the NBA are remarkably ghastly at the moment. The biggest story in the league is the team with the antisemitic movie-promoter, grouchy trade-requester, and nonfunctional would-be star possibly hiring a coach who is mega-suspended for alleged workplace misconduct. LeBron James's team is melting down. The specter of Robert Sarver hangs over Phoenix like a fart. The Philadelphia 76ers still cannot get their shit together. It feels like almost every single preseason darling is 3-4. The Utah Jazz are winning games. It's bad! I can't remember the first few weeks of a season feeling this horrid.
Amid it all, though, there is some good basketball. There is also weird basketball, happening in Orlando and Portland and a few other places, which helps give a nice varied texture to a season as interminable as the NBA's 82-contest slog. The league is better for having Bol Bol succeeding, for both narrative and entertainment reasons. He's easy to root for, whether you like reclamation stories or enjoy watching palm tree-sized and shaped guys lead the weirdest fast breaks of all-time.