lI understand the urge to describe Bol Bol with video game terminology. It’s become the default for players whose skills seem impossible in our flesh-and-blood world. And Bol, a 7-foot-2 phenom who will get picked in the first round of Thursday night’s NBA draft, certainly fits the bill. My personal favorite highlight reel of Bol, in which he is shown embarrassing unfortunate high schoolers, is titled “Bol Bol is a CHEAT CODE”—not only implying that Bol belongs in a video game, but that said game’s developers didn’t even feel comfortable including something as preposterous as Bol in standard gameplay, including him as a secret weapon for those diving deep in search of wilder possibilities.
I get it. My character in NBA Street Vol. 2 was similar to Bol; I quickly made him as tall as the game allowed, as good at shooting as the game allowed, and touched up his handles and dunking ability. (Strength and stealing ability weren’t so important to me, nor are they to Bol.)
But the true backstory for how Bol came to be is decidedly human: Bol is the son of 7-foot-7 Manute Bol, the tallest player in NBA history along with Gheorghe Muresan; his son inherited the size and agility that made his father one of the greatest shot blockers of all time. Bol will enter a league stocked with the sons of former players—from stars like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to role players like Larry Nance Jr., Domantas Sabonis, and, uh, Seth Curry. Roughly 5 percent of NBA players are children of former NBA players, which is pretty stunning, considering NBA players make up significantly less than 5 percent of America’s total population. Those players got their fathers’ genetic predisposition for height and basketball talent and had access from a young age to people who could teach them how to become a pro.
But Bol Bol is unique. First, of all the NBA sons, none have been as big as Bol. (The only other NBA 7-footer in league history whose father played in the NBA is unremarkable Knicks center Luke Kornet.) And the effect of somebody with such incredible genetics locking in on basketball from a young age is clear with Bol. While his father was able to make the NBA based on his sheer physical gifts despite not playing basketball regularly until his adolescence, Bol has spent his entire life playing the sport. At 19, he already possesses an offensive arsenal that should make him a gamebreaker in the modern NBA.
And Bol’s career won’t resemble anybody else’s—especially not his father’s. Manute carved out 10 years as a role player despite never developing much of an offensive repertoire. The range of possibilities for Bol is wide, but it seems like the least likely scenario for his future is that he manages a 10-year career as a role player. Bol is clearly one of the most talented players in the draft, but teams are scared by his medical future; he’s a big man whose lone college season was derailed by a foot injury. Without a history of injuries, Bol might have been a top-tier prospect, but as things stand now, he likely won’t be a lottery pick. (The Ringer’s draft guide suspects he will be picked 20th.)
Bol Bol arose to viral fame thanks to his famous name and his absurd mixtapes. After his abortive college career, teams will still primarily be drafting him based off of his famous name and absurd mixtapes. I don’t know whether Bol will boom or bust. If I did, NBA teams would pay me money. But I do know that Bol will be different from everybody before him—even his dad.
A 2000 ESPN the Magazine article about Wisconsin guard Duany Duany explains that it is rather common for the eldest children in South Sudanese families to have the same first and last names. College basketball rosters have confirmed that for the last two decades: There was Baylor’s Deng Deng, Cal’s Bak Bak, Ball State’s Majok Majok, UMKC’s Shayok Shayok, Campbell’s Leek Leek, and next year Cal will have Kuany Kuany. (The Kuany Kuany who played at Chaminade was a different guy.) This bewilders Americans who momentarily forget that they had to read William Carlos Williams in high school, but it’s not so hard to understand that another culture, like our own, uses names to pass down legacies.
Bol Bol has a rather tough legacy to live up to. His father made the NBA, which is already a hard act to follow. (Bol’s older half-brothers, Madut and Chris, played basketball but failed to make the NBA.) But Manute was bigger than basketball. He was the subject of SNL skits; he was a celebrity boxer; he was so captivating that linguists decided that Bol coined the phrase “my bad,” even though there’s ample evidence it was in usage before his time. He killed a lion with a spear. This sounds like an ignorant thing racist Americans might make up about an African, but no: Manute’s uncle insists he killed a lion with a spear. Perhaps most importantly, he changed the world through his humanitarian efforts. He spent most of his NBA money trying to improve South Sudan after decades of civil war and genocide. In 2010, he died after contracting a rare skin disease while trying to ensure the country’s upcoming independence referendum would be run fairly. A year after his death, South Sudan became its own nation.
On the court, though, Manute was a limited player. Yes, he was perhaps the greatest shot blocker in basketball history. He holds the NBA career record for blocks per 36 minutes (6.4) and block percentage (10.4) and is second all time in blocks per game (3.3). But he could barely score and was ill-suited to boxing out opponents for rebounds at a rail-thin 200 pounds. He averaged just 2.6 points per game and became the only player in league history to finish his career with more blocks than points. Manute Bol never scored more than 20 points in a game in the NBA; meanwhile, at Oregon, Bol Bol averaged 21 points per game.
I don’t see much of Manute in Bol’s game. But there were times when Manute foreshadowed the skills that his son would eventually display. From time to time, with no warning, the elder Bol would start chucking 3s, an avant-garde adopter decades before it became commonplace for big men to shoot 3s. On one strange night in Phoenix, Bol drilled six 3s in a single half.
When Bol pulls up from 30 feet and drills his sixth 3 of the game, opposing star Charles Barkley simply high-fives him. (It was a low-five for Bol.)
It would be more than a decade until another 7-footer hit six 3s in a game; it would be almost 20 years until another player listed as a center by Basketball-Reference hit six 3s in a game. (To date, only Channing Frye and Brook Lopez have hit more.) Stunningly, 3-pointers accounted for 8 percent of Bol’s career points. In his era, that was absurd. Of every 7-footer in the league before Dirk Nowitzki, Bol ranks third in 3-pointers made, behind just Arvydas Sabonis and Vlade Divac. There have been 12 players in league history 7-foot-4 or taller; the other 11 made just 19 3s combined. Bol made 43—more than twice as many as the rest of the players in his height bracket. Unfortunately, he shot just 21 percent on those 3s.
For Bol Bol, the 3-pointer is not just a novelty. It’s a weapon.
Bol is an effective shot blocker; he blocked 12.4 percent of opposing shots while he was on the floor at Oregon, a figure that would’ve ranked 10th in college basketball if he’d played a qualifying number of minutes. But his shot is the skill which makes him an NBA player. He hit on 52 percent of his 25 attempts at Oregon and 48.9 percent on 45 attempts on the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League circuit. His father’s shot had a windup like a Fernando Valenzuela screwball and launched from well above his head. “It was kind of like a slingshot,” says Bol of his father’s shot. Meanwhile Bol shoots from out in front of his face. It might be blockable, but it’s reliable.
Bol Bol’s shooting isn’t his only skill that would make more sense on a smaller player. He’s surprisingly quick for a big man, and as another one of his viral highlight videos from high school states, he’s got “guard skills.”
Bol probably won’t be crossing up NBA players the way he ditches those unfortunate high schoolers. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player of his height as fast or dexterous.
And that’s scary. Momentum is mass times velocity, and Bol generates an awful lot of momentum on his skinny legs. Bol’s college career ended with the biggest red flag possible in NBA circles—a foot injury to a big man. He had a stress fracture in his left foot, fixed by a surgery that required a bone graft from his pelvis. Big men with foot problems have careers that are short, painful, and full of unfulfilled promise. Foot injuries that involve the phrase “bone graft from his pelvis” are especially bad, in my opinion.
Even if we exclude the injury concerns, the fact that Bol’s lone college season consisted of just nine games is also a red flag. And while Bol Bol did play against NCAA tournament teams like Syracuse, Iowa, and Houston, most of his performances were against lower-tier opponents Oregon paid to beat, like Portland State, Eastern Washington, and Omaha. Bol posted double-doubles against all three of those schools, but we’ve still rarely seen him go against top-level talent in a serious setting.
The risks with Bol are high, and the evidence that he’ll succeed in the pros is sparse, but his potential is ridiculously high. As red as the flags are, it’s also pretty easy to see how Bol could take over an NBA game. On the one side of the floor, he could be a shot-blocking presence like his father. On the other, he could rain 3s over anybody unwilling or incapable of guarding a 7-foot-2 guy’s 3-point stroke and drive past any big man who respected his shot. It’s tough to even come up with accurate comparisons for what max potential Bol Bol would look like. Kristaps Porzingis, but better at shooting? Killer crossover Brook Lopez? Perhaps the best comparison is this: What if Manute Bol had grown up in the 2010s, in America, with a basketball in his crib?
It would be unfair to expect Bol Bol to be Manute Bol. No 19-year-old should be expected to make the NBA while rebuilding their ancestral homeland and perhaps dabbling in felling apex predators and slang creation. But he can certainly outperform his father on the court. Manute was limited by the circumstances surrounding his birth, but he left the world ensuring the basketball possibilities for his son would be limitless.