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Bol Bol Was Worth the Hype—and the Wait

It’s taken four years and a change of scenery, but the 7-foot-2 Bol is now living up to his tremendous potential in Orlando. Best of all? He’s just scratching the surface.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bol Bol became something of a mythical figure during his three seasons with the Denver Nuggets. Dubbed “Inspector Gadget” and “a human cheat code” thanks to his unique blend of size, versatility, and technique, many considered the 7-foot-2 forward a tick up on the evolutionary scale—the walking embodiment of positionless basketball. But as the years went on, Bol’s special abilities would surface only occasionally, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the prospect’s purported otherworldly potential.

Until now. After clocking just 6.2 minutes per game in 53 appearances with Denver, the son of the late two-time NBA blocks leader Manute Bol is proving to be one of the biggest surprises of this young NBA season. Bol’s career has taken a 180-degree turn since he arrived in Orlando earlier this year (via Boston and after a canceled trade to Detroit), transforming into one of the league’s most efficient players. He’s the only player 7-foot-2 or taller ever to boast 60/41/80 shooting splits over at least 500 regular-season minutes, and he has a solid chance of joining Dirk Nowitzki as the only 7-footer in the elite 50/40/90 club if he can overcome his recent slump from the charity stripe. Bol’s 66.2 true shooting percentage ranks in the top 30. And he’s the only player this season averaging double-digit points (13.0) and at least two blocks in as few as 26.5 minutes per game, along with 8.0 rebounds.

Bol’s father was ahead of his time; a big man with an 8-foot-6 wingspan who could both knock down 3-pointers and opponents’ shots (his 3.3 blocks per game ranks second only to Mark Eaton). Some 28 years after Manute’s last NBA game, Bol is continuing his dad’s legacy, proving to be just as prolific at making shots as he is at swatting them away. NBA stars of all sizes have struggled to squeeze the ball past the forward’s long arms—the former Oregon standout has collected 40 blocks, third most this season, sending back 17.3 percent of the field goals he’s faced.

In February, the Celtics traded Bol to the Magic for a future protected second-round pick. Now, some corners of NBA Twitter are arguing he’s the real Victor Wembanyama. Judging by true shooting percentage, 3-point rate, and block average no one besides Bol and Myles Turner this season has ever shot the ball and defended the rim so well at the same time since those numbers were first collected in 1982-83. That makes Bol one of this season’s early Most Improved Player award favorites. After being stuck on the bench in Denver behind a veteran cast, Bol is finally proving he’s the real deal, looking like the long-limbed unicorn with the grace of a ballet dancer that NBA executives thought he could be.

To get there, Bol needed time to develop—which the Nuggets, who drafted him no. 44 in 2019, couldn’t provide. A normal prospect typically needs time to polish the rough edges, let alone a 7-foot-2 phenomenon who has yet to harness his powers—and who himself admits couldn’t even crack the code to the skill set of his digital self when he first appeared in NBA 2K. But at Ball Arena, the Nuggets’ aspirations had reached heights beyond Denver’s oxygen-short altitude after Nikola Jokic’s and Jamal Murray’s breakout campaigns, severely limiting Bol’s opportunities for self-discovery.

“Our first three years, we were developing, and young guys were given the opportunity to play, and more importantly, play through all their mistakes,” head coach Michael Malone said in September 2021. “Well, Bol doesn’t have that option, man. It’s all trying to be home-court advantage in the playoffs.”

Orlando has provided Bol with the time and space to “put all that stuff together and silence the outside noise,” as fellow Magic big man Mo Bamba put it. Without the pressure of title-chasing, Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley has been able to get creative experimenting with Bol’s unique toolbox—his silky touch, smooth jumper, and surprisingly good footwork for a player of his frame. He quickly proved to be the best shooter of Orlando’s big-man contingent—just recently joined by this year’s no. 1 pick Paolo Banchero—which Mosley would end up deploying in über-sized lineups, in large part because of Bol’s versatility and basketball IQ.

Once the tinkering started to unleash Bol’s potential, some of the witnesses to the process were left searching for words—offering reactions akin to the wows, oohs, and ahhs of anyone who’s watched, well … Wembanyama in action.

And Bol’s highlight reel has gotten longer and longer ever since. With or without the ball, his agility and long strides allow him to get to the basket for an easy layup or a dunk in a split second. Among players with at least 50 shot attempts at the rim, no one scores more points per possession than Bol, per Synergy. Even good coverage doesn’t always guarantee a stop against him. With his reach and flexible wrist, Bol can attempt a shot farther from the rim than most—even from awkward angles—making him a nightmare matchup.

Combined with that reach, Bol’s timing and anticipation make his offensive rebounds a near-certain score. Only eight players have chalked up more points from offensive rebounds than the Magic forward (45), with 79.3 percent of such possessions ending up in buckets. At the same time, Bol’s height doesn’t hinder his game in tight spaces during half-court play. He cuts more efficiently than Nikola Jokic, Evan Mobley, and Zion Williamson, bringing in 1.59 points per possession, according to Synergy. And he knocks down floaters at a higher clip as star guards Kyle Lowry and De’Aaron Fox, with an effective field goal percentage of 42.9.

Still, Bol spends huge chunks of the game outside the key. That’s because his smooth stroke allows him to do serious damage in catch-and-shoot situations where, at 60.7, his effective field goal percentage has been just a shade below Steph Curry’s. He’s also got the handles to make an extra dribble and generate more space if necessary—helping him shoot comfortably over opposing big men, let alone smaller defenders. Guards caught in a mismatch can’t do much when the Magic’s breakout star fires shots from two floors above them. Only Nic Claxton and Harrison Barnes score more points per possession (1.8) when defended by guards than Bol has this season.

His ball control also allows the forward to regularly run pick-and-rolls as the ball handler—the only player over 7 feet tall to do so in the NBA this season. Bol has come off screens in more than one-fourth of pick-and-roll plays so far in 2022-23. It’s yet another option in Orlando’s playbook that makes the team a nightmare to defend.

Bol’s ballhandling makes him particularly dangerous in isolation—he ranks top 15 among players with at least 25 iso plays, generating 1.4 points per possession—and in transition, especially once he lunges down the court after collecting a rebound. His coast-to-coast drives—he’s tied for the seventh most in the league with 14—have been well-documented in numerous viral social media clips, perhaps because that’s where the juxtaposition of his technique and physique is at its most jarring. Suddenly, a towering figure pulls off crossovers and behind-the-back dribbles before finishing with a crafty floater, fluid fadeaway, or powerful dunk. All at a rapid speed, as Bol needs only five to six dribbles to get to the other baseline as opposed to, say, Ja Morant, who takes more than eight.

And it still feels like Bol has plenty of room for improvement. He earned a spot in the Magic starting five thanks to unbelievably efficient quick bursts off the bench early in the season. However, because he’s unaccustomed to longer shifts but also due to his generally extroverted personality, his aggressiveness tends to waver as the shot clock winds down now that he’s part of a regular rotation.

“When people pressure me a little bit, I kind of ease off,” he recently said. “I just need to stay in attack mode, and that’s something I need to keep in mind.”

And while Bol has proved to be an elite shot blocker and rim protector, defending a league-leading 73.1 percent of shots at the rim among 7-footers, his physique does put him at a disadvantage against bulkier big men while defending the post. Also, his height naturally translates to a below-average lateral quickness, making him a defensive liability farther away from the basket.

Bol is far from a finished product—and one can only guess what the finished product could be. But one thing is certain: He is neither a myth nor a folk legend. Bol’s talent is as real as it gets.

All stats current entering Monday’s games.