When Oregon’s Bol Bol fell all the way from the top-five prospect he was projected to be before the 2018-19 college basketball season tipped off to the 44th pick in the 2019 NBA draft Thursday night, some fans and media were surprised to see it happen.
Nobody was more surprised than Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, who shocked a lot of observers when he said he’d rather have Bol, the son of the late Manute Bol, than even Zion Williamson, selected first overall by the New Orleans Pelicans.
In a predraft interview with Complex, Shaq said he has gotten to know the newest Denver Nugget through the 19-year-old’s friendship with his son, Shareef.
Asked who he’d build a team around, O’Neal said, “I don’t even think I go with Zion. Believe it or not, I would go with Bol Bol. Because him and Shareef are friends and I’ve seen the potential what this kid can do.
“For example, when I was his coach in AAU, we never lost. He’s got it all. He’s (7 feet 2), he can shoot, he can dribble, he can pass. But nobody really knows it because he was always hurt.”
It’s the “always hurt” part that provides the linchpin of the difference between Shaq’s opinion of Bol and the NBA front-office community’s viewpoint.
The NBA draft, like drafts in all sports, is a fundamental exercise in risk analysis at its deepest core.
On the reward side of the equation, you look at a player’s talents, and if you’re really analytics-minded, you try to project exactly how many points per possession above league average your player will bring, drafting the player with the highest projected increase given your present roster, cap situation and plans for free agency in July. The best teams have this down to a science.
On the risk side, you have to weigh both the possibility that a player will fail to meet his potential — the classic “his ceiling is X player,” usually an All-Star or even a Hall of Famer, vs. “his floor is Y player,” almost always a historic draft bust. For example, Goga Bitadze, whom the Indiana Pacers picked 18th, has as his ceiling Nikola Jokic and his floor Nikoloz Tskitishvili. One is great; the other is one of the great failed experiments in drafting a European big man who never played American college ball.
Along those lines, Bol’s ceiling is an upgraded version of his father, who at 7-foot-7 was not just the tallest player in NBA history but also a fantastic shot blocker, a good rebounder and even a guy capable of 3-point shooting at a time when that was the exclusive province of smaller wing players in the NBA.
Unfortunately, his floor is Kevin McHale — the 1992 version of McHale whose feet were shot and whose career was functionally over.
Given that Bol suffered a stress fracture in his foot just nine games into his “one-and-done” season at Oregon, a similar injury to the one McHale suffered in 1987, it’s understandable that NBA general managers were spooked on draft day.
O’Neal seemed undeterred by that historical parallel, however.
Besides Bol’s friendship with his son, Shaq also believes that Bol has a more polished skill set than Williamson that the Nuggets will be able to develop into a quality NBA career, especially with Bol’s minutes naturally limited as the backup to Denver’s All-Star center Jokic.
Shaq wrote off Williamson as a one-dimensional player who’s more flash than substance.
“Zion is dunker, dunker, dunker, dunker,” O’Neal said. “You ain’t gonna be able to do all that [in the NBA]. I was the man in high school, I was the man in college, but as soon as I got to the NBA, I was No. 50. Seriously, I was 50. There was [Charles] Barkley, [Michael] Jordan, [Scottie] Pippen. So I had to start [improving].
“I know [Williamson is] a powerful dunker, but he’s going to have to develop something else.”
Granted, this is a valid criticism of Williamson, but such questions have arisen around every player who has ever been drafted into the NBA.
Bol has a measurable liability — the history of the NBA is littered with big men whose careers were ended by injury to their lower body, and nobody wanted to repeat the mistake the Portland Trail Blazers made in 2007 when they took Greg Oden first overall and let the Seattle Supersonics — soon to be the Oklahoma City Thunder — have Kevin Durant.
If Shaq wants to build a franchise around a big man with injury problems who is also thinner than a toothpick — Bol is listed at 7 feet 2 and just 235 pounds, and it’s doubtful he’s even that heavy — he’s certainly allowed to say so.
Bol himself said Thursday night, “I just want to prove everyone wrong.”
Bol Bol “I want to prove everybody wrong” pic.twitter.com/OrGBTVK6Tx
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) June 21, 2019
But O’Neal is seriously mistaken if he thinks building a franchise around Bol Bol instead of Zion Williamson is the right play.
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