By Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Writer
Jonah Bolden is just 23 years old, but he has already had a professional basketball career that can be described as a bit of an odyssey. He was a highly-recruited high school player, #27 in the 2014 Scout.com rankings (#32 by Rivals and #69 by ESPN) who chose to attend UCLA. However, he was deemed a partial academic qualifier coming out of high school due to a late transfer in his senior year from his home nation of Australia to a United States prep powerhouse, Findlay Prep. As a result, he was forced to redshirt during his freshman year.
Bolden was suspended to start his redshirt freshman year due to an unspecified violation of team rules, but eventually became a noted defensive stopper for Steve Alford’s UCLA teams. He was promoted to a starting role halfway through conference play, but the team faltered late and failed to reach postseason play in 2016. Bolden, seeing injured players returning and possibly taking his minutes, decided to leave UCLA during the summer. Because he was too late to be considered for the NBA Draft, he signed with FMP in Serbia.
Bolden flourished while with FMP. He established himself as both an offensive and defensive threat, finishing with 12.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game to go with a block and 1.3 steals in 27 minutes per night. More importantly, he flashed a real ability from beyond the 3-point arc, hitting 40.5 percent of his attempts on four attempts per night. He was named the Adriatic League’s top prospect in 2017, an award previously won by Ante Zizic, Nikola Jokic and future 76ers teammate Dario Saric.
During the 2017 offseason, Bolden declared his eligibility for the NBA Draft and was selected No. 36 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. He initially wanted to move back to the US and play immediately upon being drafted, but general manager Bryan Colangelo convinced him to stay in Europe for one more season. He then signed with Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. While playing in Europe, Bolden saw a dip in playing time, playing in just over 21 minutes a night. However, he was still able to maintain his steal and block rates, though his offensive production suffered in a more limited role with a better team.
Bolden officially joined the 76ers for the 2018-19 season. He received minimal time with the 76ers early in the season, and was moved to the G League Delaware Blue Coats once their season began. His play in Delaware, along with ineffective play from other 76ers big men, forced the team to reconsider the decision to send him to the G League.
Bolden was moved into the big team’s rotation in December, playing 16 minutes a night in 16 games through the end of January. He struggled with fouls, showing some questionable defensive decision making despite flashing strong skills as a help defender. And, despite having a long-range shot that could generously be described as a line drive, he was an effective floor spacer, shooting 35.5 percent from beyond the arc on two attempts per night.
The 2019-20 season will be a turning point for Jonah Bolden. He will be fighting for minutes in a big man rotation crowded by starters Joel Embiid and Al Horford as well as Kyle O’Quinn, Mike Scott, Tobias Harris (seeing time as a small-ball power forward) and possibly even Norvel Pelle, who is currently signed to a two-way contract. The hope is that he will be able to show more of the skills he showed as a prospect in the Adriatic League, where he was able to switch on all positions defensively, act as a playmaker on offense and be a more effective shooter from 3-point range, all while also cutting back on his propensity to commit fouls on defense.
Bolden will be getting an early start on the season when he steps on the court for his home country, Australia, in this summer’s FIBA World Cup. He projects as a starter for his respective team along with other NBA players such as Utah’s Joe Ingles, Phoenix’s Aron Baynes, Milwaukee’s Matthew Dellavedova and San Antonio’s Patty Mills. The Australian team will be tested early, playing in Group H with medal contenders from Lithuania and a strong young Canadian team, along a tough Senegal team that finished third in the most recent AfroBasket tournament. The hope is that Bolden can parlay regular playing time in the World Cup into a contributing role for a 76ers team angling for superiority in a wide-open NBA Eastern Conference.
Jonah Bolden’s career odyssey likely will not end with his stint in Philadelphia, but if he can extend his stay in the City of Brotherly Love and help the 76ers win a championship, he will forever be remembered for his time here.