Sports

Bubble Basketball Means Bol Bol Basketball

And that’s a good thing.

Bol Bol shoots over Hassan Whiteside
Bol Bol of the Denver Nuggets attempts a shot over Hassan Whiteside of the Portland Trail Blazers during the third quarter at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on Thursday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The NBA summer restart has provided its fair share of pleasant surprises. Along with the WNBA and MLS, the league stands out as one of the few American institutions to have approached the coronavirus pandemic with adequate precaution and care. That’s one surprise. The games have also been excellent, and a handful of random players have used the opportunity to turn themselves into post-apocalyptic superstars. Indiana’s T.J. Warren is Elgin Baylor, apparently. Carmelo Anthony has wound the clock back to 2011, and the Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. is making his completely insane pre-draft assessment that he’s “a mix of Giannis and KD” look a smidge less crazy.

The restart is also granting a few players who weren’t given pre-bubble playing time a chance to showcase their stuff. Denver Nuggets second-round draft pick Bol Bol didn’t appear in a single game before the league relocated to Walt Disney World, but he’s now doing stuff like this in his new digs.

There are plenty of guys in the league who are the progeny of former NBA players. The brothers Curry. Tim Hardaway Jr. Gary Trent Jr. Gary Payton II. Glenn Robinson III. Jud Buechler IV. (OK, that last one is made up.) They all had some pretty big shoes to fill, but Bol Bol’s got them beat. He is the son of Manute Bol, the Sudanese American legend who played for 13 memorable seasons during the 1980s and ’90s. The younger Bol seems to be answering a most intriguing question: What if Manute Bol grew up playing basketball?

Manute Bol died in 2010. During his playing days, he was one of the most famous and recognizable people on Earth, both in name and by appearance. Remarkably thin, the nearly 7-foot-7-inch Bol was the second-tallest player in NBA history (behind Gheorghe Muresan). Because he learned the game late in life (he reportedly never even touched a basketball until his late teens), Bol’s offensive skills were limited, and he had to make his mark as a rim protector and shot-blocker. He had 397 blocks during his first year in the league, which is a rookie record and remains the second-best single-season total in league history. He is also the only player to tally more blocks (2,086) than points (1,599) during his career.

Bol Bol is nearly half a foot shorter than his father was, but, at 7-feet-2-inches tall, he’s still one of the league’s rangiest players. Because the game has become so spread out, he doesn’t need to be the same kind of shot-blocker as Manute. The younger Bol also has to contend with the defensive 3-second rule, something his dad never had to face. This doesn’t mean he won’t have to worry about getting dunked on, however, as he learned against the Trail Blazers on Thursday.

Bol Bol is still very much a work in progress, but his set of surprisingly lithe skills are difficult to ignore. He has decent handles and can thread a bounce pass through traffic like a 7-foot Sudanese American Jason Williams.

He can also shoot the three, which is something of a prerequisite for playing in the modern NBA. In his nine games at the University of Oregon, Bol averaged 52 percent from behind the arc. He’s only taken four 3-pointers in competitive bubble games, but he’s made half of them. If he can keep this up, Bol will be one of the greatest 3-point shooters in NBA history. (He will not keep this up.)

Many fans may assume that this skill was not passed down from his father, but Manute Bol was actually something of a gunner for a brief spell during his career. In 1988, he was traded to the Golden State Warriors, where he played an up-tempo style under head coach Don Nelson. Bol took 91 three-pointers that season, putting him among the top 50 players in the NBA in attempts. He made 20 of those shots, which may seem paltry today but was good for 62nd-most 3-point makes that season.

He would never again see that kind of green light from deep, but, in 1993, Bol managed to hit six 3-pointers against the Phoenix Suns. He made them all in a single half.

His son’s motion is a lot more fluid, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss that old trebuchet from deep.

The legend of the Bol family lives on. This time, however, Bol Bol’s teammates are actually setting screens for him.

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