For parts of three seasons in Denver, 7-foot-2 Bol Bol stood hiding in plain sight.
Whether it was due to a deep Nuggets team, or circumstances that he admittedly could’ve handled better, Bol never seized his chance in Denver. But returning as an opponent for the first time to Ball Arena on Sunday night, Bol spoke to The Denver Post about what he could’ve done better at the start of his career.
It revealed a measure of accountability and maturity that hadn’t yet developed before a series of trades landed him in Orlando with the upstart Magic.
Now, in a situation where there’s less pressure to perform and a longer runway to develop, Bol is thriving. Lost in the madness of Nikola Jokic’s game-winning 3-pointer Sunday night, Bol was instrumental as the Magic threatened to snap Denver’s winning streak, finishing with 17 points in 18 minutes of work in the Nuggets’ 119-116 win.
It was enough for Nuggets coach Michael Malone to approach him after the game and let him know how proud he was of his growth.
“He’s had a helluva season,” Malone said, even floating his name as a Most Improved candidate. But mostly, Malone said he was pleased that Bol settled in a place where he could play through his mistakes and prosper.
“I root for Bol,” Malone said. “I root for (former Nuggets guard) Gary Harris.”
At 11.8 points and seven rebounds per game, Bol has rejuvenated his career. He did so by taking ownership of what he did wrong.
Before the game tipped, Bol stood in a back hallway of Ball Arena and admitted his effort wasn’t always where it needed to be with the Nuggets.
“Yeah, I can say there was a little bit, I feel I could’ve worked a lot harder,” he said. “That was just me being young. That’s one of the things I learned, you have to work hard or (stuff’s) not gonna work out for you.”
But, Bol probably needed his Denver experience to arrive at the success he’s had in Orlando.
“I think it (was) very good for me,” he said. “(My time in Denver) definitely put me through a lot. Even off the court and on the court. But I think everyone goes through their own struggles.”
Even though he didn’t play, Bol said being a part of two separate second-round playoff teams made an impact on him. When the Nuggets made it to the conference finals in the Bubble, Bol absorbed being around that team, watching how Jokic comported himself.
“Nothing’s ever completely over,” he said when asked what he learned in Denver. “Here, people might think, ‘Oh, he’ll never play again.’ Here, I just learned a lot from watching Jokic. That was big for me.”
Late in Sunday’s game, with the Nuggets up 104-103 and just 6:13 seconds remaining, Bol crossed Jokic a step inside the arc and then finished an uncontested, two-handed jam. Jokic never stood a chance against the rangy, almost incomparable Bol. His rare blend of size, agility and skill has always made him a tantalizing prospect, but he just needed to mature.
After the game, Jokic had a message for him.
“If you dunk one more time on me, I’m gonna F him (up),” Jokic said with his dry reverence.
He never would’ve made that comment, or even engaged with Bol after the game, if he didn’t appreciate the strides Bol’s made as a professional.
In Orlando, Bol has an opportunity to grow with a young team on the rise. Instead of being a raw, unfulfilled talent stuck at the end of the bench, he has an opportunity to be a foundational piece in his new setting. It’s an opportunity he hasn’t taken for granted.
“New space, new opportunity for me,” he said. “A younger team. It wasn’t like here, where it was kind of hard for me to play because they were already a really good team, an established team, a playoff team. Now, I’m just getting a re-start.”
Bol said on occasion he’s stayed in touch with Jamal Murray and said he regularly keeps up with Michael Porter Jr. There was a palpable, almost boyish excitement as Bol readied to face his former team.
“When I see them guys, it’s like I never left,” Bol said.
Maybe he had something to prove, or maybe he just wanted to show his former team that he wasn’t a lost cause. Regardless, he’s seized ownership of his career.
“I think I’ve changed (the perception) a little bit, not completely yet,” he said. “… People see I can play, it’s just about opportunity.”
When he looked back on his time in Denver, he didn’t seem to dwell or hold any grudges about how this chapter of his career went.
“It’s part of my journey,” he said with a smile.
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