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Jonah Bolden: Rookie Year in Review

Recapping Jonah Bolden’s rookie year and how he could be valuable for the Sixers moving forward

Jonah Bolden Media Opportunity Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images

A year ago today I was ambitiously excited to see if Jonah Bolden would be signed to a contract, and even more enthused to see if he would be able to crack the rotation and provide valuable minutes to a team that desperately needed help off the bench. Bolden did what I expected in his rookie year, which was a little bit of everything... he played defense, shot the 3 even better than I thought he would, showed flashes of his passing ability, and ran the floor (107 pace). While he still has much to work on to perfect his game, Sixers fans should be ecstatic that they have this young Aussie on their bench.

His season highlights started off with a 3-point shooting barrage in a 42-point blowout win against the Wolves, a game where he scored 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting from deep. He had a double block on the Spurs’ Lamarcus Aldridge that led to a fast break dunk. After Joel Embiid went down for a stretch, it gave Jonah a spike in playing time. He had two stellar back-to-back performances on the road against the Thunder and the Warriors, scoring double digits in both games and missing just two shots from the field in a total of 40 minutes played. Although Embiid came back, the season began to wind down, which opened the door for more Bolden minutes. He now has a full season under his belt, but there are still some questions unanswered, and some new questions that he will be tasked with next season.

Some of those questions included:

  1. Would Bolden be able to shoot the 3 well enough from NBA distance?
  2. Would he be able to defend positions 3-5 at the NBA level?
  3. Literally, what position is he?

So let’s take a dive at each question:

Three-Point Shooting

Through Bolden’s first 19 appearances in the NBA, he struggled and shot just 16 percent from long range (just four makes on 25 attempts). His breakthrough came on Robert Covington and Dario Saric’s return to Philadelphia, when Bolden drained four threes on five attempts en rout to his second highest scoring total on the season (14 points). From that point on, he shot 44 percent from 3 the rest of the regular season (30 makes on 71 attempts). Bolden finished the season making 44 total appearances. About 11 of those appearances were just garbage time minutes, so in the 33 “real games” he played, he shot 39 percent from 3. He made 2-plus 3s in eight of those 33 games, and the Sixers went 6-2 in those eight games, the only losses coming to the Warriors by three points, and Milwaukee by six points (scoring is good!!!!). An extremely strong stretch of shooting from mid-January to early March bumped his 3-point shooting up from 16 percent to 35.5 percent, and gave Jonah the national rep of a bench shooter for the Sixers.

Bolden finished the season sustaining that 35.5 percent clip. If he can sustain that shooting for next season and develop other parts of his game (defense, strength, and overall in-game reps) he could become a very valuable bench piece for the Sixers backup front court in the Run It Back Season. His shot chart and heat map chart (I feel like Andrew Patton just a little bit) show that he’s making a very active effort to play the modern style of basketball. Outside and inside scoring, no “lost art” shots for Mr. Bolden.

(Aren’t they beautiful??)

His floor spacing is crucial for a Sixers team looking to space the floor as much as possible and let players like Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler operate downhill in the paint. Bolden fits that strategy, as 13 of his assisted field goals came from Ben Simmons, and 12 came from Jimmy Butler (a team-high 14 came from T.J. McConnell on account of their sharing garbage time together). But this is evidence that driving players are looking for Bolden on the perimeter, or diving into the paint for easy buckets. 46 percent of his total shots came from “wide open” 3s (defender not within 6 feet). If Bolden can keep this up, he’s got a bright future on this team and in the league.

Defense

Moving on to what was Bolden’s calling card as a prospect, his defense. Surprisingly, this side of the ball proved to be more of a struggle for young Bolden in his rookie year. The ardent defender was a little toooooo eager to make his mark and often got caught biting on pump fakes, getting caught reaching, and going diagonal when jumping to defend drivers. Some of this can improve with simple lessons and training in the offseason. Hitting the weight room and getting stronger can help his interior defense, while remembering to stay vertical, he could avoid pesky fouls that limit his time on the court.

His timing and anticipation is very good, but he still needs adjustment to the speed and dynamism of thiiiiis leeeeeague. Personally, I’m less worried about him figuring out how to play NBA defense; he has the body, length, and enough athleticism to be a good-to-great defender in the coming years. While no defensive numbers from his rookie year jump off the page, he finished with a 2.0 DBPM and 0.9 DWS are encouraging, but the 5.6 fouls per 36 are obviously a point of emphasis to work on next season. However, with free agency still pending and the roster uncertain, Jonah is one of the four players guaranteed under contract for next season. His time off the bench (or even in a starting role depending on how things go) is still pending, but if he can make the necessary adjustments, he could be a nice wildcard.

What Position is he?

While playing on Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in the Euroleague, Bolden mainly played the power forward position, but was able to guard small forwards-centers. He was overpowered by some of the more muscular and physically daunting forwards this season, and wasn’t a totally reliable source as THE backup center to Joel Embiid. Per Basketball Reference, 53 percent of his time came at center, with the other 47 percent coming at power forward. Assuming Elton Brand addresses the backup center situation in free agency, Jonah could see a similar split in time per position, as Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and the FA Big could round out the 4/5 spots.

One interesting pairing that we could see more of next season is Joel Embiid and Jonah Bolden. Last season, they played 138 minutes together with an ORtg of 105.3 and a DRtg of 93.8 (NET 11.5), while playing at a 111.27 pace; opponents shot just 42 percent from the field when those two were on the court together. I wouldn’t think they would be starting out there together, but if Joel’s substitution pattern stays the same next season, Jonah and Joel could come in together for Joel’s second stint on the court. If the Sixers retain JJ Redick and the substitution patterns stay the same, Bolden could enter the game when Embiid, Redick, and Ben Simmons check back in; it could be a death lineup of sorts for this team. The Ben/JJ/Joel/Jonah lineup only sported 32 minutes last season, but posted a 122 Ortg and a 82 Drtg (38 NET). As I said before, the backup rotation is still uncertain, but if the Sixers could optimize Jonah Bolden at the four, they could have a gem on their roster moving forward.

With the draft and free agency still to come this summer, it’s nice to know that the Sixers have a nice young piece on their bench, still to be unleashed (not to mention the other young weapons the team has in Zhaire Smith and Shake Milton).