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2017 NBA Draft Profile: Is Jonah Bolden UCLA’s 4th First Round Pick?

Will UCLA fans be wondering in a few years if Steve Alford got enough out of Jonah Bolden?

NCAA Basketball: McNeese State at UCLA
Jonah Bolden could be a long term NBA player
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

While Bryce Alford has sparked by far the most debate here on Bruins Nation over the use of any basketball player in Steve Alford’s tenure, the second most debate has probably been over Zach LaVine. Did Steve Alford play NBA talent LaVine correctly or enough? Well get ready for another debate over Jonah Bolden in the coming years. For Jonah Bolden may not only be drafted tomorrow but may turn out to be one of the better UCLA players in the draft this year.

First, an optimistic take from Bolden’s hometown newspaper, the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

At UCLA he would be seen on television every week while in Serbia he could be dominated by older, remorseless professionals.

But the 21-year-old Sydneysider proved those doubters wrong this season at FMP Belgrade winning the rookie of the year award in the Adriatic Basketball Association – the last three winners Ante Zizic, Nikola Jokic and Dario Saric were all drafted and the latter two are rising NBA stars.

Bolden's gamble on his talents and ability to play against men may well take him into the first round of Friday's NBA draft in New York.

There is no certainty he will move into the first 30 picks and earn a guaranteed contract but respected coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted on the weekend that Bolden was too talented to still be around after the first round.

This is not just Jonah’s hometown paper (emphasis mine), from The Ringer:

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.

A more honest take on Bolden may be Draft Express which has him going in the second round:

A large part of Bolden's intrigue as a prospect, in addition to his length and fluidity, revolves around his shooting potential. Bolden has made noticeable strides as a perimeter shooter in his year in Serbia, hitting an impressive 40% of his 4.2 3-point attempts per game, but just 61% of his free throw attempts. He has very good mechanics when stepping into his shots in rhythm, catching and releasing in one fluid motion on the hop, while showing deep range and the ability to make shots off the bounce as well, sometimes after using sharp step-backs off isolation plays. –

Bolden's playmaking this season has been somewhat of a mixed bag. On one hand, he'll wow you on occasion seeing plays before they happen and threading the needle impressively with bounce passes in drive and dish situations. On the other hand, his decision making can be very questionable at times, as he tends to run into brick walls, throw bullet passes into the third row, and generally turn it over more frequently than you might hope.

Defensively is where Bolden will likely make or break his NBA chances. He has the size, length and mobility to be a significant factor on this end of the floor, particularly with his ability to switch on screens, move his feet and stay in front of guards. He has choppy footwork on the perimeter and is generally very light on his feet for a 6'10 player, giving him plenty of potential as a defender. He got in the passing lanes at a great clip this season, at 2 steals per-40, and also did a nice job as a rim-protector, at 1.4 blocks per-40.

Bolden's focus tends to waver from possession to possession and it's not rare to see him lose his man off the ball. He plays very upright at times and doesn't always bother getting in a defensive stance, allowing himself to get buried under the rim without resistance. This shows up most vividly on the defensive glass, where he rarely boxes out, is often flat-footed as the ball comes off the rim, and tends to get moved around by stronger players without fighting back. He was very foul prone this season at 4.3 fouls per-40 minutes, after averaging 3.7 per-40 at UCLA.

What does this all mean? Bolden could be a taller Matt Barnes and be in the league a long time or a taller Tyler Honeycutt and be out quick. He has a unique body and skill set but his biggest question mark is his head. Not to sugarcoat it, but he spent most of his time at UCLA ineligible for grades. He did not leave to Europe over fear of playing time but seemingly because he flunked out.

As bad as Bolden’s 15-17 UCLA team was (and the fact it had Tony Parker trying to play four which was a major liability), it seems Bolden should have played more minutes. Steve Alford had an NBA four on his roster. But no one should forget that Bolden, after sitting out a season academically ineligible, was suspended for his first game. I mean, how can you do that after waiting a year to play?! Bolden’s head is always a question mark.

Hopefully, Bolden will get his act together, but I really have to wonder if he is mentally disciplined enough to play in the NBA.