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Jonah Bolden’s golden opportunity to claim Sixers’ backup center spot

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Bolden’s defensive potential and valuable archetype are perfect complements to Philadelphia’s frontcourt.

NBA: Summer League-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Summer League isn’t 22-year-old Jonah Bolden’s ideal playing landscape. With the dearth of playmakers and July basketball’s chaotic offensive nature, Bolden didn’t look comfortable creating for himself off of the dribble. Regularly, he’d fumble his dribble or lack the proper body position to attack downhill. Bolden shot just 35.1 percent from the floor and a ghastly 23.5 percent from deep. Chalk it up as an aberration, as Bolden shot significantly better this past season for Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv (46.6 percent, 30.7 percent).

Bolden’s defensive performance in Summer League garnered positive reviews and helped earn him a four-year, $7 million deal, the last two seasons non-guaranteed, with Philadelphia. In the wake of trading Richaun Holmes to Phoenix for cash, Bolden now represents one of three possible backups for Joel Embiid. Recent addition Mike Muscala is capable of playing both frontcourt positions while Amir Johnson is limited to the center spot at this stage in his career.

Bolden played center over the past two summer leagues for Philadelphia, but he can also play the four in a pinch. He’s much more athletic and capable on both ends than Johnson while Bolden significantly edges Muscala on defense. Bolden is at the beta stage of a 3-and-D trajectory as an NBA backup, but his tape illustrates there’s hidden potential in Bolden’s game.

Defensive Versatility

Bolden’s 7’3” wingspan and springboard elevation allows him to ascend rims and reject shots that Muscala cannot reach. Muscala averaged a mere 0.9 BPG per 36 minutes last season and opponents shot 59.6 percent when six feet and in from the hoop, per stats.nba.com. Bolden now becomes Philadelphia’s second-best rim protector behind Joel Embiid and that attribute is invaluable when the 7’2” superstar sits.

Bolden averaged 1.6 BPG per 36 minutes last season for Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, but can reject shots in a variety of ways. His precise timing and lift allows him to help on the weak side, recover and deter shots from a standstill. Via Streamable and Real SPGHighlights, we can view Bolden’s proficiency as an undersized shot blocker.

Bolden’s bounce from different angles in the paint, in conjunction with his length and athleticism, provides opportunity for blocked shots.

This past Summer League against Milwaukee, Bolden relocates to blindside block Sterling Brown’s shot and darts up the floor as an outlet for a transition layup after Christian Wood misses a jumper. (Video compliments of ESPN.)

As my colleague Kevin Rice mentioned during our pre-Summer League Q&A regarding Bolden, Bolden’s agility in fast break situations helps him outpace his opponents. Kevin articulately sums up Bolden’s jets:

“Ohhhhh man, Jonah Bolden in transition is something else. He loves to grab boards and GO GO GO. His usual outlet target was former Sixer Pierre Jackson, but with a lineup featuring the freight train Ben Simmons and the highflying Zhaire Smith, the Sixers could be running a West Coast offense in South Philly. Jonah should fit in flawlessly with the Sixers system in transition.”

Bolden will have to adjust in pick-and-roll coverage against quicker guards and stronger big men than he faced overseas in Israel. The clip below provides an example of Bolden switching then moving laterally to shadow his man into a spike at the rim. This play encapsulates Bolden’s shot-blocking ability as his lateral quicks, length, timing and athleticism helps him thwart a mismatch. If Bolden is able to blow up screens and switch onto guards at the five, Brett Brown will certainly appreciate that type of impact from his second unit big man.

Bolden isn’t strictly a rim-protector. Over the past two Summer Leagues, Bolden recorded 24 steals and 17 blocks in 14 games. Bolden’s anticipation for a big man allows him to intercept passing lanes and his quick hands help with on-ball thefts. Philadelphia ignited plenty of transition opportunities via steals last year, ranking sixth in the NBA at 8.2 SPG, and Bolden will help maintain that productive figure. A backup who can be a contributor in both steals and blocks per game? Sign me up.

Standpoint of Bolden’s Offensive Development

Bolden is much more defensive oriented at this stage of his career, and could be a project offensively. Brett Brown’s tutelage of Robert Covington, Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell as shooters promotes optimism that Bolden can follow a similar trajectory to his peers. Knowing his roster spot is finalized, Bolden can iron out his jumper at Philadelphia’s training facility and have more certainty about his standing on the team.

Between Bolden, Johnson and now Phoenix Sun Holmes, Bolden has the quickest release and cleanest mechanics. There’s definitely consistency issues which affected Bolden’s summer league efficiency, shooting 23.5 percent from deep, but his mechanics are respectable for a big man. Watching some of his offensive highlights from Israel last season, Bolden can sink catch-and-shoot threes and can pull off dribble sequences into step back jumpers.

Bolden also devours lobs as a rim-runner in pick-and-role situations for easy catches and dunks while displaying some deft touch around the basket on layups.

Bolden is more technically refined offensively than Richaun Holmes and Anzejs Pasecniks, providing some potential reaching 3-and-D levels earlier than expected. While Muscala’s playing time hinges on how well he spaces the floor, Bolden already fulfills one of the main qualities a backup center needs: stout defense.

While Bolden, Muscala and Johnson could duel for backup minutes and spot starts when Embiid sits, Bolden’s game is tailor-made for the modern NBA. Philadelphia has a budding 3-and-D center to spell Joel Embiid and he’s basking in a shiny new four-year contract. Welcome, Jonah Bolden.