It was a tale of two seasons for Orlando Magic center Bol Bol in the 2023 season.
At the beginning of the season, Bol was the breakout player for the Magic. But by season’s end, he could not find time on the court and began to rack up DNPs. He found himself back where he started the season, a promising bundle of talent that struggled to find his place on the NBA floor.
Bol showed flashes of the player some fans dreamed he could be coming out of Oregon but as quickly as he burst onto the scene in Orlando, he lost that spark by game 82.
Bol Bol got his first serious look at an NBA court and seemed to thrive early in the season for the Orlando Magic. The talent is all there. But Bol’s effectiveness waned by the end of the year.
On the year, Bol averaged career-highs across the board while playing in more games than he had in his first three years in the league. He averaged 9.1 points per game on 54.6 percent shooting from the field while starting 31 games for the Magic. In his entire time with the Denver Nuggets, he only started twice.
In the opening month of the season, Bol averaged 20.3 minutes per game and set a then career-high for points in a game with 19. In October, he hit double figures in scoring four separate times which doubled the number of times he achieved that mark in his first three years with Denver.
It felt like a coming-out party. And in Orlando, it made perfect sense.
November was more of the same for Bol. His minutes went up to 30.3 per game and he notched five double-doubles on the month. His presence was a nice story for a team dealing with injuries. Bol jumped at that opportunity.
Despite the individual success, the Magic hit their lowest point moving into December, leading the team to reevaluate everything. As players got healthy — particularly the returns of Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs — Bol Bol’s minutes got pinched. It became harder to give him the freedom he thrived in when the team was struggling to field a roster.
Bol saw his minutes decrease every month for the rest of the season except for the three games he played in April with the Magic eliminated from the postseason. He remained in the rotation, but his minutes dropped precipitously until he was finally out of the rotation in February.
In December his minutes dropped to 24.7 per game, in January they dropped to 17.4 per night, and in February, it went down further to 16.3 before finally settling in at 12.3 in March.
It is unclear whether fewer minutes for Bol contributed to Orlando’s success or if they just found their footing after rough start. But there did not appear to be a correlation to the team’s success and his best games early in the year. He thrived with the time the injuries to the roster gave him and then struggled to adjust as his role changed.
Orlando certainly is not committed to him as a starter even as they tried to find ways to make him fit despite some clear shortcomings.
As the year wore on, Bol seemed more and more disconnected and after landing in the league’s health and safety protocol in early January due to COVID, he was not the same player.
He struggled to find his footing when he was back in the lineup and only broke the 20-minute mark five times during the rest of the year.
The Bol Bol as we knew him slowly faded away.
Injuries got Bol in the starting lineup back in October and he took full advantage of his extra minutes.
Looking ahead to next season he’ll need to improve in some major areas if he wants to stay on the court, especially if Orlando can make a run at a postseason spot.
Now that he has had real playing time for the first time in his career, he can better understand what he needs to work on.
Part of the appeal for Bol is that he is a unicorn. A player who, standing at 7-foot-2, can run the floor, dribble to create open space and shoot the three.
And for the most part that is his game and it is truly one of a kind. But for the last couple of months, he did not shoot effectively whatsoever.
Bol hit 65.3 percent of his shots in October, followed by 58.4 percent in November (including 16 for 36 from deep) and 56.6 percent from the floor overall in December. His 3-point shot started to tail off, hitting only 8 of 23 in December and then dropping to 4 for 46 (8.7 percent) the rest of the year.
There were definitely things to like. When the threes were not falling he did not force the long-distance shots and tried to attack.
The three-point shot makes directly correlated to his three-point shot attempts. And as he continues to improve his shooting stroke, he will avoid the cold streaks suffered this season.
Nobody was stopping Bol in the open court because of how nimble and quick he is at his size. But defenses learned to use that size against him in the half-court. He would try to force shots in the mid-range or force his way to the basket. Defenses were able to swipe the ball from him in these situations. Bol had 1.4 turnovers per game after December, even as his minutes decreased.
Finding ways to keep Bol effective when he did not have the ball was one of the challenges, especially on the defensive end.
Here, Bol’s performance was a bit of a mixed bag with some numbers supporting him and the eye test often not.
You would think a 7-footer with a wingspan of 7-foot-8 would be a force on defense. Or at least excel in help-side defense with his mobility.
But for Bol, the defensive mental lapses and struggle in transition prevent him from being a force on that end.
While this year was still an improvement for him, it could be the main reason he could not keep consistent rotation minutes once some of the injured frontcourt players returned.
But it was not all bad on the defensive end. As far as the stat sheet is concerned, Bol still averaged 1.2 blocks per game and a positive defensive box plus-minus (0.9).
But his impact on shots near the basket still left some to be desired. When guarded by Bol, opposing players shot 65.5 percent from field goal attempts less than six feet from the basket.
That number was 63.5 percent from 10 feet or less and 57.5 percent overall on 2-pointers.
So while he was on the court more and swatted some shots, his defensive presence still was not what it needed to be, or where it could be.
The question for Bol is whether he will own these mistakes and now having experience and some runway to play and work this offseason to improve. It will be the only way to highlight his strengths.
Coming from the Denver Nuggets, there were whispers of disengagement and lack of conditioning. Bol seemed uninterested and injuries only further hampered his growth.
It proved to be partially growing pains, as he did improve his work ethic this season and made strides in the right direction for the first in the NBA.
But for Bol, there is still a lot of work to do. And he will need to continue to buckle down when the going gets tough.
For almost an entire two-month span, Bol did not break double digits in the scoring category. And before he finally broke the dubious streak in April, he had not played in any of the previous seven games despite being healthy.
It is apparent he does not let the way this season end discourage him from making an impact next year.
There was a lot to like about his fourth-year campaign and for what it’s worth he did finish the final three games of the year on a high note.
So going into the 2024 season, Bol needs to make sure he stays diligent during times of struggle because it will come again.
This final grade does seem a tad harsh but despite the highs Bol Bol experienced, and the promise he still possesses, it was time to be realistic about the totality of the season.
And the ending was obviously what brought him down. Because not only did he regress to the mean, which was to be expected, but he fell down the hole he climbed out of in Denver.
It is also not completely clear if the minutes he received towards the end of the year were due to the Magic being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs or not.
Regardless, it was good to see Bol back on the floor, but it is considered a sour note.
So while Bol took advantage of his extra playing time earlier in the year, he lost his spot in the rotation and fell back into his old ways.
It was promising to see how he could play when given the opportunity but if coach Jamahl Mosley and the Orlando coaching staff did not feel he was good enough to play near the end of the year, even when healthy, then he can’t get more than a C+.