Trial by fire. Baptism by buckets.
Nuggets rookie Bol Bol got his unofficial NBA indoctrination on Tuesday night in Brooklyn.
It was only after running through his pregame shooting routine that Nuggets coach Michael Malone told Bol he was getting the start, replacing Gary Harris who was out due to personal reasons.
“It surprised me a little bit,” Bol said. And then reality hit. Bol’s first career start would come against none other than four-time NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant. Bol immediately sat down with one of the Nuggets’ defensive coaches and worked through Durant’s tendencies – a task akin to a getting a doctorate in a day.
“Just went over all the plays that they would run for him and what he likes to do,” Bol said in the aftermath of Denver’s 122-116 loss to the Nets.
Malone’s thought process wasn’t complicated. Behind the scenes, Bol had been working hard to get playing time. He’d gotten in extra reps on practice days, lifted alongside Nikola Jokic in postgame sessions and begun asking more questions. Without an obvious defensive replacement for Harris, Malone thought big.
“Size, length, Bol’s been working very hard,” Malone said. “… So this was just an opportunity for him to go out there, play with the starting group, have a chance to match up with a guy like Kevin Durant and maybe use his 7-2 frame, 7-9 wingspan to maybe make things difficult.”
By starting Bol alongside Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Jokic, it also allowed Malone to keep the bench unit intact, which as of recently, had found a rhythm. Not to mention, who else could reasonably bother Durant’s ridiculous release point?
That Bol struggled was nothing to be ashamed of. Checking Durant in your NBA debut is a monumental task. Few in the league can even contemplate a realistic contest against Durant. Twice Tuesday night Bol was draped all over Durant, seemingly in good defensive position. And twice Durant canned a 3-pointer over Bol’s outstretched arms. On the last one, Bol looked back at the shot in disbelief.
“It’s hard because 6-11, 7-0, however tall he is, he can handle in the pick-and-roll, he can shoot off the dribble, he can drive, he can do everything,” Bol said. “You don’t really run into that pretty often.”
And despite the overwhelming challenge, there were stretches where Bol held his own. In 16 minutes, Bol finished with five points, two rebounds and an assist. Both of his rebounds came off Durant misses, and they were the type he had to fight for rather than the ones that simply fell to him. If Bol’s ever going to find sustained playing time in Malone’s system, he’ll have to use his length as a rebounding asset.
He also admitted he needs to slow down, which is apparent via the traveling violations he’s routinely called for.
“I do need to slow down on my pump fakes, so I can put the ball down first,” he said after adding two more turnovers to his record.
But casting the defeat and Durant’s 34 points aside, there were undeniable strides he made.
“The most positive for me was just playing hard throughout the whole thing, like no matter what happened,” Bol said. “The two travel calls, KD makes tough shots. Just keep playing through mistakes. … I think that was the best part.”
Nuggets guard Monte Morris can always be trusted to offer useful insight. It shouldn’t be taken lightly when Morris revealed Bol’s been talking more defensively, asking questions and opening up in general.
“I think that was the biggest step for him,” Morris said. And then Morris shared one more nugget which showed Bol wasn’t dwelling on his mistakes but was already learning from the experience.
“He’s still in his locker talking about how tough KD was making shots, and I just told him, ‘That’s gonna be you, just keep working hard,’” Morris said. “I was just happy he got thrown in the water like that against a guy like that because you can’t do nothing but learn from it.”