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Jonah Bolden Is a Lottery Talent Hiding in the Second Round

The 21-year-old Aussie forward took the long way ’round: He left UCLA after one season to pursue pro ball, and after a stellar year in Serbia has emerged as one of the most versatile talents in the draft pool. The secret’s out now.

(AP Images/ illustration)
(AP Images/ illustration)

Jonah Bolden is the best player in the draft no one is talking about. That’s what happens when you leave UCLA for the Adriatic League. Bolden was a top-50 player in 2014 according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, and like so many other elite recruits in today’s game, he was unsatisfied with his role on his college team. After sitting out his first year in Westwood due to academic issues, he didn’t want to miss another season in order to transfer, so he headed overseas, winding up at KK FMP in Belgrade in 2016. Bolden stuffed the stat sheet in Europe, averaging 12.9 points on 48.1 percent shooting, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, one steal, and one block a game. If he had a season like that at UCLA, he would be seen as a potential lottery pick, instead of a second-rounder. (Bolden is a consensus top-30 prospect in The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide.)

Talent has never been the issue for Bolden. At 6-foot-10 and 227 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he has a combination of length and athleticism that every team in the NBA is looking for at the forward positions. A native of Australia who attended prep school in the U.S., Bolden was recruited by every school in the country before choosing UCLA. However, he never lived up to his potential in Steve Alford’s program, sitting out one season and then coming off the bench for an underachieving team that went 15–17 in 2015–16. Lonzo Ball stabilized the point guard position and turned things around for the Bruins last season, but Bolden had already decided to leave.

"I had a great experience with the coaches at UCLA, and I’m still close with a lot of people there, but I felt like I could do more [in Europe] and better utilize my skill set," Bolden told me over the phone last week. "I knew what I was getting into. My mom is from Egypt and my dad [Bruce Bolden, a Boise State star in the 1980s] played overseas for 17 seasons. Coming from Australia, I already felt like a foreigner in America, so I was just leaving and going to another country."

The transition to Europe wasn’t easy. Bolden went from living in Los Angeles on one of the most idyllic campuses in the country to being crammed into a tiny apartment in a dorm next to his team’s gym. He was the team’s only player his age for most of the season, and he endured 10-hour bus rides to various cities in the former Yugoslavia, as well as hostile crowds who would throw coins and batteries at opposing players. FMP cycled through three different coaches in his one season there, forcing Bolden to adjust to new roles and responsibilities over the course of the season.

"The whole experience forced me to be very adaptable. I feel like I am ready for anything now," Bolden said. "I had to learn about being a professional. It was kind of do-or-die for me over there. I threw myself in the deep end and had to make it work for me."

Bolden preferred playing for the second coach, Branko Maksimovic, who allowed the team to play faster and gave his players more freedom on offense, but he thrived regardless of who was in charge. He was named the Top Prospect in the Adriatic League at the end of the season, following in the footsteps of Ante Zizic (a first-round pick of the Celtics in 2016), Dario Saric, and Nikola Jokic.

"The Adriatic is one of the midlevel leagues in Europe, and a lot of younger players thrive there," said ESPN analyst and European basketball expert Fran Fraschilla. "If the best team in the Adriatic played UNC 10 times, they would probably win six games and UNC would win four."

No college team would have a great matchup for the new and improved version of Bolden. The biggest change for him this season was the rediscovery of his 3-point stroke, going from shooting 25 percent on 1.2 attempts per game at UCLA to 41.9 percent on 4.2 attempts per game at FMP. He has deep range, a high release point, and the ability to catch and fire quickly, so he opens up a lot of space on the floor for his teammates:

What makes Bolden unique is that he’s a stretch 4 who also has the athleticism of a rim-running 5. He’s a threat to catch and finish lobs anywhere around the basket:

Bolden is comfortable playing with the ball in his hands, and he loves to push the pace himself after grabbing the defensive rebound. While he occasionally forces passes that aren’t there, he’s a high-IQ player with the ability to see the floor, and he should be better served by playing with more talent at the NBA level:

Bolden remembered that play, from the semifinals of the Serbian League playoffs, as soon as I asked him about it. "[My teammate] wasn’t ready for the pass. I saw him two steps before. Before I even got the ball, I knew where it was going," he said with a chuckle. Just because you can see a play doesn’t always mean you should make it, and Bolden will have to learn how to walk that line to earn the trust of his NBA coaches. He always plays with his head up, and he’s the rare player his size who can turn over the defense and then run the break the other way:

Like most players drafted outside the lottery, Bolden will have to earn his keep in the NBA based on his defense, and he has the physical tools to be an impact player on that side of the ball. While his effort level fluctuated at times — which is fairly common for a player his age — he also showed the versatility to match up with different types of players and defend multiple actions:

There aren’t many guys at any level of basketball who have Bolden’s ability to protect the rim and slide his feet on the perimeter. He doesn’t have the defensive instincts or mentality of an elite shot blocker, but when he’s in the right position on the floor, he can play way above the rim and reject shots with authority:

The most intriguing aspect of Bolden’s defensive profile is how he would fare in the type of switch-heavy defensive scheme that is becoming increasingly popular in the NBA. Watch him switch onto Mega Leks point guard and fellow NBA prospect Ognjen Jaramaz in this sequence and force him into an almost impossible shot:

"I think defensive versatility is a strength of mine," Bolden said. "I want to become a player who can guard all five positions."

One of the most common criticisms about Bolden in scouting circles is that he isn’t as tough as he needs to be to survive in the paint in the NBA. He will need to continue getting stronger, but his frame has noticeably filled out since his days at UCLA, and it’s not like he’s going to play all that much in the paint at the next level anyway. The ironic part about Bolden’s decision to go overseas is that he wanted to play more as a small forward in order to showcase his perimeter game, but there’s no longer much of a line between 3 and 4 in the NBA. The nature of the 4 position is changing rapidly, with players like Harrison Barnes and Al-Farouq Aminu making the switch in recent years. Bolden is ideally equipped to switch screens and guard out on the perimeter while still being able to hold his own on the glass and bang in the post, which have become essential tools for a modern player at the 3, 4, or 5. In contrast to guys like Jahlil Okafor, who were born 15 years too late to be great in the NBA, Bolden has come to the league at the perfect time for a player with his skill set to succeed.

There are only two players in this draft other than Bolden who shot more than 40 percent from 3 while still averaging at least one block and one steal per game. One is Markelle Fultz, the likely no. 1 overall pick, and the other is Derrick White, a senior guard from Colorado who may end up being taken in the first round.

"What will really surprise people about Jonah is just how good a shooter he is and how athletic he is," said Jason Smith, his high school coach, who has sent 10 players to the NBA in his 16 years at Brewster Academy. "He’s the prototype combo forward. He just came back from Serbia this week, and I think as he works out for NBA teams word will start to get out about what type of player he is."

One thing holding Bolden back is that many decision-makers in NBA front offices have not seen him in person since his time at UCLA. His season in Serbia didn’t end until early June, so he won’t have the chance to hit the workout circuit as heavily as some of his college peers. He will have a pro day in Los Angeles on June 17, but it’s unclear how many general managers will get a chance to look at him, considering how busy their schedules are in the week leading up to the draft. While it was widely reported that Bolden signed a two-year deal with KK Crvena Zvezda (more commonly known as Red Star) over the weekend, I was informed by his representatives that he actually signed a three-year deal with the club last season and was then loaned out to FMP, which essentially serves as a farm team for the bigger club. However, due to the way the Adriatic League regulates loan agreements, Bolden’s contract with Zvezda was initially reported as a one-year deal with FMP. He still intends to come over to the NBA next season after paying a buyout to Zvezda, which could be an issue for teams looking for a draft-and-stash player (the Blazers, Jazz, and Nets, who all have multiple first-rounders) at the end of the first round.

If Bolden had stayed at UCLA and spent a year running the break with Ball, there’s no telling where he would have been drafted. Two of the big men who replaced him at UCLA, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, are currently projected as first-round picks, even though neither is as versatile as Bolden. No matter where he ends up being taken, the 21-year-old has a mature perspective that belies his age: "Once the draft is over, it doesn’t matter whether you got picked in the lottery or in the second round," Bolden said. "Everyone has to prove themselves once they get to the NBA, and I know I can play."