Summer League is the chance for newly drafted players to get some run and for fringe players to make a name for themselves. This Sixers Summer League team doesn’t have a top lottery pick playing for them like in the past, but they have been able to get a better look at some depth pieces.
The two players with the most eyes on them have been first round pick Zhaire Smith and former second round pick Jonah Bolden. Smith has shown that he is deserving of a role with the team right off the bat because of his incredible defense and slashing ability, but Bolden is a different story.
Jonah Bolden has a crazy amount of potential, and after a second season overseas, the feeling is that he is ready to come over and play in the NBA. While Summer League isn’t wholly representative of what NBA basketball is really like, it gives fans the first look at many of these players in their first taste of NBA-level competition. Bolden played in last year’s Summer League, and compared to this year there is a noticeable difference in level of play from the big man.
This year it feels like Bolden is too eager to try and make a play, often times rushing and forcing a mistake. He has his ups and down on the defensive side of the ball, but for the most part, he has shown to be a solid defender. He’s a natural power forward but has the speed and length to briefly guard a small forward and strength to guard a center around the rim. What is concerning is that most people hoped that Bolden would look like a player too good for Summer League, but he has settled into being just another guy on the court at this point.
Because of the moves the Sixers made this offseason, finding minutes for Bolden is going to be tough. Re-signing Amir Johnson to continue his role as the main big man off of the bench and bringing in Nemanja Bjelica to play power forward have provided competition for Bolden in the rotation. Not only will those traditional big men be competition, but some wing players might also stand in the way of Bolden getting on the court. Wilson Chandler was picked up in a trade to provide wing depth, but because of the amount of guards in need of minutes on the bench, Chandler may have to play some power forward. Since there is no clear path towards minutes for Bolden, the question needs to be asked if it is worth having him sit on the bench in the NBA rather than playing overseas.
Looking deeper into his season with Maccabi Tel Aviv this past year, Bolden didn’t put up great numbers (6.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 21.1 MPG), but there are explanations for that limited production. In the Israeli League there is the “Russian Rule” where only three non-Israeli players can be in the starting lineup. Because of this rule and a player like Alex Tyus, someone Liberty Ballers’ own Kevin Rice compared to the EuroLeague’s version of DeAndre Jordan, Bolden was forced to come off of the bench. If he ends up returning to Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, then he will most likely be returning to the same situation which could stunt his growth.
The Sixers have a decision to make on Bolden, and it may be one that doesn’t have a true winner. If Bolden ends up going back overseas he may still be getting only bench minutes, but if he comes to play in the NBA he could be out of the rotation entirely. One thing the Sixers learned this past year is that depth is a necessity in the NBA. Whether it be because of injuries or ineffective play, capable backups need to be available to step up and get minutes as needed.
Another factor is that if Bolden ever refuses to be stashed, the Sixers would have to offer him at least a one year, non-guaranteed deal or renounce his rights. It would be a shame to waste the potential of having four years of a rotational player at a rookie minimum contract.
Due to his lackluster Summer League play, the Sixers haven’t made up their minds on Bolden for this season. The best course of action should be allowing him to train with NBA coaches and get a handful of minutes once the season comes or even becoming a mainstay in the G-League for a year. With the influx of new talent on the roster, the Sixers can afford to take things slow with Bolden, a player oozing with potential. If he can work with the team and become a reliable option off the bench this year, then great. If not, then the team has the depth to allow him to learn off of the court.
Update: A previous version stated Bolden would be subject to a rookie scale deal, but that only applies to former first-round picks.