Bol Bol, the giant thinman with the NBA-famous last name, is finally growing into his enormous shoes
This generation hates being patient and loves being reactionary (I blame it on TikTok!).
Killian Hayes was ruled a bust despite hardly being old enough to order a drink. Victor Wembanyama is set to be a surefire all-timer without ever even stepping foot on an NBA court. The Minnesota Timberwolves need to consider rebuilding twenty-plus games into the Rudy Gobert experiment. Etc. Etc.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the fourth-year walking giant Bol Bol was appraised as a mere gimmick after failing to find his footing through his first few seasons (especially after a failed physical vetoed a trade that would have made him a Detroit Piston last season).
However, hasty judgments hardly ever amount to anything accurate, and the Bol propaganda is no different. After injuries relegated him to only 53 games in his first three seasons, a healthy Bol has not only found his footing in Orlando, but made himself a frontrunner for the Most Improved Player Award.
The Man who Defies Archetypes
Through 24 games, Bol is averaging 12.9 PPG on 67.4% True Shooting (+10 percent better than the league average).
When you hear that type of stat line from a big man, your mind begins to think of prolific lob finishers like Clint Capela and Deandre Ayton. Then you find out that Bol is stroking 41.3% of his threes, and you shift your original assessment to start viewing him in the same vein as perimeter unicorns like Lauri Markkanen and Kristaps Porzingis. And then you see this stat:
Percentage of unassisted 2s and 3s this season:
Turner: 2s = 15.8%, 3s = 0%
Markkanen: 2s = 42.0%, 3s = 11.6%
Porzingis: 2s = 42.3%, 3s = 6.4%
Bol: 2s = 52.8%, 3s = 31.6%
Pretty crazy how much more of an on-ball load he has than some of the other offensive unicorns. pic.twitter.com/QlvzKVAFj3
— Mat Issa (@matissa15) December 5, 2022
Unlike guys like Markkanen, Porzingis, and Turner, Bol does a good chunk of his damage off the dribble. Some of this is out of necessity (the Orlando Magic are lacking in the on-ball creation category), but a lot of this is about Bol’s truly guard-like skillset.
While it looks a bit wonky to the naked eye, Bol has an advanced handle for his size (remember, he’s 7 ‘2). And it enables him to dribble through traffic for finishes, seamlessly flow into dribble pull-ups, and occasionally find open shooters out on the perimeter after collapsing the defense. On one occasion against the Brooklyn Nets, Bol even whipped out Allen Iverson’s famous hang dribble to sink a pull-up three-pointer from the top of the arc.
While on the subject of his relative comfort handling the basketball, his game also has grab-and-go properties. Similar to Domantas Sabonis, Coach Jamahl Mosley has designated Bol with the discretion to take matters into his own hand after he secures a rebound on defense.
When he does choose to push the pace, he is liable to do all the things he is capable of in the halfcourt – finish at the rim, pull up for a jumper, or find a streaking teammate for a high-value look.
On average, he creates 3.3 of these chances per game, which is a huge boost to the Magic because he averages 1.19 points per possession on each foray (per NBA.com). For reference, Orlando would have the second-best offense in the NBA if every play they ran was as efficient as a Bol transition possession.
Pterodactyl Wings for Arms
Like much of this Magic roster, Bol’s defense is a work in progress (hence the bottom-five defensive rating). He struggles executing pick and roll coverages, misses standard rotations, and is susceptible to instances of ball-watching.
With that said, he accumulates more blocks than a Twitter burner account. His 3.6% block percentage places him in the 89th percentile for his position (per Cleaning the Glass) – and that’s with him having to concede rejection opportunities to the other giants he regularly shares the floor with.
Length is the most credible variable for his success in this category. We may be getting to the point as a basketball collective where we are overvaluing the attribute, but one thing length does afford its beneficiaries is a larger margin for error on defense.
Bol is not immune to the shortcuts this tool provides him. Often, he’s able to recover after falling a step behind his man, or deter his adversary from testing him entirely.
This play from the Magic’s clash with the Toronto Raptors on Saturday perfectly encapsulates this maxim. What initially looks like drop coverage turns into a late switch for the Magic, and it leaves Bol on an island with All-Star Point Guard Fred VanVleet.
In most cases, when gifted with a mismatch of this degree, a faster guard like VanVleet will attempt to take the larger, slow-footed defender off the dribble. However, for some reason, VanVleet doesn’t even challenge him and settles for a pull-up triple.
That some reason we’re alluding to is Bol’s length. You know how we know this? Look what happens when VanVleet attempts to launch that shot. Yikes.
Most Improved Player?
So, back to the original question: is Bol the current favorite to win the Most Improved Player Award (MIP)? To answer this, we’ll turn to our trusty old partner – data.
The website Opta Analyst has a metric called “DELTA.” What this metric does is calculate the difference between a player’s DRIP score (the website’s version of a one-number catch-all metric) from the beginning of the season until now. This makes DELTA a great metric for ascertaining the climate of the MIP award.
Let’s take a look at the leaders in this stat. Well, would you look at that…
DELTA Leaderboard 2022-23*
*Per Opta Analyst
Not only is Bol leading the league in DELTA, but he is well ahead of the player currently sitting at second place, Jalen Smith.
Now, one-number metrics are far from perfect. There are multiple considerations that belong in an analysis like this. But at the very least, his standing in this measure indicates that he’s in the epicenter of the award race, and that we were wrong not to give him a chance to come into his own.