On February 6, the Sixers acquired Boban Marjanovic (and, like, some guy named Tobias, who is apparently not the same Tobias from Arrested Development) in a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Jonah Bolden has not touched the floor since that moment.
Per Basketball Reference and their play-by-play data, Bolden played approximately 29 percent of his minutes so far this year at center, with the rest coming at the four. The addition of Tobias Harris to man the four-spot and play heavy minutes there was obviously going to cut into Bolden’s opportunities at that position, but with Mike Muscala also gone and Amir Johnson racking up DNPs since before the trades even went down, there were questions about Bolden maybe getting some more time as the backup five. Sure, Boban was part of that deal, but Boban (despite having one of the highest PERs of all-time) has struggled to get consistent minutes in every place he’s played, so the possibility existed that we’d see more of Bolden and he’d be able to stretch the floor out as a more versatile version of what Muscala’s minutes at the five looked like.
So far, though, Boban has had those backup five minutes on lock. When Brett Brown was asked about that, he had this to say:
This makes a lot of sense! It’s the regular season, you just acquired a really intriguing new piece, and you really want to figure out the best way of utilizing that piece. I get it! And you want to use him as the primary backup center in all situations right now just to get a sense of how he looks in that role. This is a good time to do that!
But...well, I think that this team also needs to do another thing before the playoffs get here: play Jonah more too, and see what this new-look Sixers team looks like with Jonah taking backup five minutes. If the Boban thing fails and he winds up being unplayable against certain teams, you have to know how Bolden’s going to look with all these new guys. You need him comfortable playing with Tobias Harris and Mike Scott and James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons.
A Brief History of Boban Marjanovic
I don’t think Boban should be out of the rotation or anything. While his game can be limited, he does one thing really, really well — score near the basket.
You probably remember this article from FiveThirtyEight that was published last year, because it went all around Twitter and help crystallize the idea that Boban Marjanovic is an incredibly efficient scorer whose other shortcomings have prevented him from making much headway at the NBA level. The basic gist of the argument was this: Boban’s points per shot attempt were the best in NBA history at that point, but his lack of lateral quickness made him such a defensive liability that it didn’t really matter much.
I took a look at some other Boban-related stats based on Chris Herring’s original stipulation of comparing Boban to other players who average 30 points per 100 possessions. I’ve added “must have played 100 career games” to the list to get a more accurate picture of things. Here are some things I found:
- Boban ranks first in true shooting percentage at 64.2 percent, just above Steph Curry’s 62.4 percent.
- He ranks second in field goal percentage at 57.8 percent. Only Shaquille O’Neal is above him at 58.2 percent.
- Same picture for two-point field goal percentage.
- Boban drops to third in effective field goal percentage!
- He’s fourth in PER among these players, though I think it’s safe to say now that PER isn’t the best advanced metric we have available to us.
So, we’re all good with the idea that Boban is really efficient, yeah?
Even his brief Sixers career is a good example of this. Yeah, a four-game sample is tough to draw conclusions from, but Boban has single-game field goal percentages of 50 percent, 83.3 percent, 100 percent, and 71.4 percent. He’s getting the good, inside shots that he needs to keep this efficiency up:
Boban uses his size to get position inside, and then makes use of his other-worldly accuracy at the rim. He’s shooting 65.9 percent from inside 10 feet this season.
And as Herring pointed out in the aforementioned article, Boban has a really good rebounding rate and does well defending inside the paint. This season, he’s ninth among players who’ve played at least 400 minutes in rebound rate, and he’s allowed opponents to shoot 62.1 percent inside of six feet. For comparison, that’s not as good as Joel Embiid (61.7 percent) or Al Horford (62 percent), but it beats out such names as Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, and Jusuf Nurkic.
So, what’s the problem? Well, opposing teams can take advantage of Boban’s lack of speed by using screens to get him switched onto quicker players out on the perimeter, and that’s where things start to fall apart. Boban lacks the lateral speed to be trusted to defend in space, and the rest of the players on the floor have to overcompensate for that reality.
There’s also the issue of floor spacing. As we all know, the Sixers like to play point guards who aren’t threats from deep (Ben Simmons, T.J. McConnell), but they offset that by having Joel Embiid, who can leak out to the perimeter and score from there, and from having had Mike Muscala playing back-up minutes at the five before he was traded. With Boban and one of those two at the point, you lose something in terms of space. Tom West wrote a few weeks ago about Jimmy Butler playing the point more, which brings a whole new thing to the floor and negates some of the ill effects of having to plant Boban down low every time down the floor.
What about Jonah Bolden?
There’s a decent amount of people around Liberty Ballers who belong to the Jonah Hive. I’m not necessarily one of them, but I do think he deserves some more run as the season goes along.
Before the trade that brought the dynamic duo of Bobi and Tobi to Philadelphia, Bolden had averaged 15 minutes per game over the past 18 games. The post-deadline Sixers have a lot more wing depth and guys that can size down to play the four, though, so Bolden’s minutes there are unexpectedly gone. Still, couldn’t he bring some things to the floor as the backup five? Spacing? Switchability?
Bolden’s only shooting 31.9 percent from deep on 1.7 attempts per game, but he shot 34.9 percent in six G-League games this season and, umm, another 31.9 percent last year in the EuroLeague. But all that is a step up from his 25 percent mark from deep at UCLA back in the 2015-16 season, and it doesn’t factor in his 2016-17 year with FMP Beograd, when he attempted 4.2 threes per game and made 41.9 percent of them.
Basically, Bolden has promise as a stretch five. You don’t need your center to be elite from deep — Joel Embiid is shooting just under 30 percent this year — as long as he’s capable of hitting open shots and connects on enough of them that defenses don’t just leave him completely alone. Ben and T.J. are at their best when they can get to the basket, and Bolden can open up the paint in a way that Boban can’t. If Boban ever comes down the floor and stands in the left corner, not a single defender is going to think hmm, gotta stick with him. Instead, they’ll linger closer to the paint, ready to provide some extra help defense on drives.
You can also do more with picks on the offensive end. Take this play from the January 31 game against the Warriors:
Bolden screens for Jimmy Butler, and both his man and Butler’s man follow Butler on the drive. That allows Bolden to get open, and Butler kicks it back out to him for the open 3.
Or there’s this play, from the same game:
So, you have both Ben and T.J. on the floor here. That two-man pairing has a negative net rating this season. In fact, of the 25 most used two-man pairings for the Sixers this season, none have a worse net rating than that one. Part of that is due to the team’s offensive struggles with those two on the floor, because both guys really hurt the spacing. How can you counter that some? JONAH! On this play, you basically have to have a big on the floor who can stay out on the perimeter. Bolden drills the open 3 here; his ability to make this shot is a big part of why lineups with these three have a (#SmallSampleSizeAlert) 127 offensive rating in 75 minutes. It seems like common sense, but putting capable shooters around non-shooters is a good idea.
Aside from what Bolden brings on the offensive end, his ability on defense might be even more useful, especially against teams that go small.
It’s not so much that Bolden is a great defender, or even necessarily a good defender yet, though he’s shown signs of being one. Opponents are only shooting around 3 percent worse when he’s defending them than when Boban is, and while that matters some, neither have played enough possessions for that to definitively be something more than just statistical noise. What does matter is that Bolden has the ability to not be a completely liability when he’s guarding in space, and he’s also capable of holding his own as a post defender:
Of players who’ve played 300 minutes or more this year, Bolden ranks ninth in blocks per 36 minutes. He’s got the skill to contest inside, and he also did this to Kevin Durant:
GET THAT BALL AWAY FROM THAT BASKET KEVIN.
Bolden does a great job here helping Jimmy Butler after Durant drives and gets good position on Butler, and when Durant spins to attempt the lay-up, Bolden is right there.
Look, I get it. Boban is new, and you want to see what he can do, and he’s by far the better interior offensive player. But Bolden brings a lot to the court as a potential shooter and as a defender that Boban doesn’t, and there are going to be times where you need that spacing against teams that play smaller. You can’t wait forever to get him on the floor, to get him minutes, to get him acclimated to this new-look squad. When basketball resumes after this All-Star break, let’s see some Jonah Bolden. It doesn’t have to be in huge doses, but there are going to be situations throughout the remainder of the season where Boban just won’t be the guy you need on the floor. Be proactive and play Bolden in those situations.