It wasn’t until 2013 during the Junior Australian National Championships that Bolden’s dream of playing in the NBA started to feel like a somewhat reachable feat. It was after that tournament that people started talking. His performance prompted a move to the U.S. and stints with Findlay College Prep and Brewster Academy where, Bolden says, he really started to believe he belonged in the upper echelon of high school players in the U.S.
By the end of 2013, Bolden had landed at UCLA as a four-star recruit, but didn’t impact the floor as he’d hoped. In a move considered unusual – this was years before LaMelo & LiAngelo took Lithuania – he decided to shift gears and headed overseas to play in the Serbian Basketball League. In 2017 Bolden was picked at no.36 in the NBA Draft by the 76ers and played Summer League before signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv. The rest we know.
Bolden says taking the Europe route made him a smarter and more physical player. “There is no better place to be in order to prepare for the NBA,” he said. “Maccabi is a powerhouse club with a rich history. [The] organization is first class, fans are so passionate. Of course, it was great that we won the championship.”
This Summer Bolden spent some time with Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy in Los Angeles and also in Australia. A veteran coach who has worked with players from Penny Hardaway and Shawn Marion to Kobe and Kyrie, Handy observed that Bolden has a tremendous work ethic, that his appetite for the game seems endless and he’s quick to pick things up. The sessions conducted by Handy zeroed in on improving footwork, working on quick and clean ball handling skills, post ups, pick and roll and shooting at the perimeter.
I think his ceiling is very, very, high in terms of where his game can go.
“He’s got a nice IQ, and a really good understanding of the game. But what I like about him most is his willingness to learn and to improve his skill set. I think he’s got a tremendous opportunity in front of him with the ‘76ers and just showing people what kind of skill set he has,” says Handy. “I just don’t think a lot of people around the NBA are really familiar with him, so, with his size and athletic ability I think he’s got a great opportunity in front of him.”
This year will be the first time Philly fans will get to see Bolden on the floor. Handy said the Australian big man's athletic movement and ability to shoot threes like a guard will surprise fans. “Jonah is very long; he’s a long, wiry, big man and, for his size, he’s a very mobile, agile big,” says the veteran coach. With the upside comes the realization that it’s going to take time to fine tune Bolden’s game. The expectation is that with each strength and conditioning session, the consistency in his shots will start to come and the real Bolden will flourish. The improvement is expected in his threes and developing a true low post game where he can play a variety of roles; whether it be with his back to the basket or running out to face up and take advantage of slower bigs.
“I don’t think Jonah knows what player he can be," Handy continues. "His potential for growth is massive right now. He’s going to get stronger as he continues to get better with his footwork and ball handling. You know people say, ‘sky’s the limit’, I think his ceiling is very, very, high in terms of where his game can go.”
For the past two years, Bolden has been working the grind with professional NBA skills trainer Jordan Lawley in Orange County. Lawley is a former pro-baller turned mentor who has coached the likes of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Aron Baynes, Carmelo Anthony, Julius Randle and NBL players like Chris Goulding. Most of the work has an emphasis on building the body but the program is designed to transition Bolden into the NBA physically through situational scenarios: the heavily-guarded long three, covering the floor on defense, and getting active touches under a crowded rim. Under Lawley's watch, he says Bolden is striving to be the new age big man who is able to play most positions, shoot from three, play good defense and stretch the floor.
“We’re trying to figure out who he is as a consistent player but he’s such a unique build it’s just a matter of, can we open up his frame to make him more lateral like a Kristaps Porzingis, or like a passing Jokic who has court awareness and vision,” he said. “He has traits of so many players in the league. His body type is rail thin but he can play really good with his back to basket. We just got to figure out ways to make him fit in this league and stand out.”