This offseason was a busy one for the Philadelphia 76ers. Trades, free agent signings and draft choices were aplenty as the team continues to look for a way to improve in hopes of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, and eventually, a trip to the NBA Finals. The team is going to look very different this year, but there will still be some familiar faces. We know what kind of roles players like Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris are going to play, but many of the players coming off the bench this year don’t have that same luxury.
Brett Brown is known to experiment with his lineups early in the season to figure out what does and does not work. While the first couple weeks of the season don’t seem incredibly important in the grand scheme of things, this is potentially when the backups can carve out specified roles and concrete minutes for the rest of the year. Several players who were either re-signed or signed for the first time this offseason — James Ennis, Trey Burke, Raul Neto and Kyle O’Quinn — are coming in to fight for minutes, but there is one player who has taken a backseat in these discussions over minutes that shouldn’t be overlooked: Jonah Bolden.
Last year was an up-and-down experience for the Australian big man. He found himself the benefactor of an increased role at points during the season and completely out of the rotation at others. Bolden showed glimpses of what makes him an interesting player, but too often, he was subjected to sitting on the bench because of simple mistakes that NBA players can’t make if they expect to play. Only 23 years old, Bolden is still a raw talent, but if the Sixers want to find out what they have in him, they are going to need to let him play through some of his mistakes.
While much of the league is seemingly going in the opposite direction, the Sixers have made it a priority to play a style of “jumbo basketball” that we haven’t seen in quite some time. With the starting lineup being so big, it would be unrealistic to believe the team can sustain that type of play over an entire game. The Sixers are going to need to bring in players that can play small ball in certain matchups. This is the easiest way for Bolden to both crack the rotation and stick there: playing the small-ball center role that he wasn’t given the opportunity to thrive in last year.
While his role won’t be as crucial as the players ahead of him like Joel Embiid and Al Horford, Bolden should be able to find a few minutes per game where his frenetic energy has an effect on the outcome. Despite poor defensive numbers guarding the rim, he has flashed shot-blocking ability with 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. Additionally, he has worked on his outside shot and is able to get up and down the floor faster than many of his larger counterparts. In spurts, he has shown that he can play in this league.
As of now, Bolden is down in the pecking order. He won’t get many minutes as a power forward due to the signing of Al Horford and the return of Philadelphia’s new folk hero Mike Scott, and we still have to see how Brett Brown deploys new addition Kyle O’Quinn at center. Still, strong play in limited minutes to start the year from Bolden could change some things.
Jonah Bolden isn’t a game-changer at this point in his career, but in order for him to take the next steps to potentially getting there, he needs a consistent source of minutes. The way that the Sixers are currently constructed, that time can come by committing to playing him as the small-ball center. Come playoff time, it will be nice to have other options at center when Embiid needs a break. Obviously the addition of Al Horford is what first comes to mind, but having someone in Bolden to step up in a pinch and produce would be a welcome change. The Sixers haven’t exactly been the model of success recently at developing their draftees into strong role players, partially due to their inability to allow these young players to play through their mistakes. Jonah Bolden could become the exception to that, he just needs the opportunity.