Jonah Bolden's 'different' journey to the Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA

ByMatt Walsh ESPN logo
Thursday, August 9, 2018

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Jonah Bolden describes his path to the NBA as "different" -- emphatically refuting other descriptors, such as "long" -- and despite having felt NBA-ready when the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him in 2017, playing in Europe for the past year has only made him hungrier.

"There's no doubt I felt ready for the NBA [on draft night in 2017]," he tells ESPN following a training session with National Basketball League side Melbourne United, and under close watch from both his father, former NBL star Bruce Bolden, and United coach Dean Vickerman.

"But the 76ers sat me down and explained the situation, that they had to sign a couple of guys and they didn't have a roster spot for me, and I was happy to go to Maccabi Tel Aviv (in the Israeli Premier League) for a year and come back because of the people they have at Philadelphia."

Despite being drafted in the second round, seemingly ready to join fellow Aussie Ben Simmons and phenom Joel Embiid at the 76ers, Bolden found himself back in Europe -- where he was plying his trade before the 2017 draft.

Through 29 games in the Israeli Premier League in 2017-18, the 22-year-old boasted 7 points per game (at .487 percent), but notably led the team for steals and rebounds, averaging 5.5 boards and 1.2 steals per game, highlighting his defensive doggedness.

As a result, the Sixers approached Bolden last month with the news they were offering him a four-year, $7 million contract, and Bolden knew his hard work was beginning to pay off. But with his eyes firmly fixed on making a tangible impact in the NBA, Bolden says his celebrations were kept pretty low-key and involved just his family and partner.

"We signed [the contract] at dinner so that was our celebration. We signed and then we ate, it was pretty nice," he tells ESPN.

"The contract was just a testament to my hard work, I think. I tried not to buy into the 'alright, that's it, I've signed an NBA contract and I've accomplished my dreams' side of thing.

"I've got my foot in the door, and this is just the opening for what's yet to come."

His father Bruce, who played professional basketball in Australia for more than a decade, was equally measured when opening up about Jonah's journey.

He says while Jonah was "absolutely" NBA-ready this time last year, the decision for the Sixers to postpone his son's NBA career only made him more motivated over the ensuing months.

"He's probably a lot more polished now (compared to 12 months ago)," Bruce Bolden tells ESPN. "He has a greater understanding of where he will fit in the team and his role within it.

"It's given him clarity on where he'll fit in best and have the biggest impact."

Clearly evident in Jonah's demeanor and attitude is his eagerness to get over to Philadelphia and start learning from head coach Brett Brown, who, according to Bolden, has already done wonderful things with a raw, young group of players.

He says his aim is to get into Philadelphia earlier than required following the NBA's rookie transition camp in New York, "to get a head-start, especially in the weights room".

"I'm very excited for what's to come, especially knowing that the young group [the 76ers] have got, and the development staff they've got on board like Brett Brown," Bolden says.

"They've really emphasized development with their staff, like they know their guys are young, they give them time.

"They draft guys for a reason ... they see the potential and what these guys can do in the years to come."

Of course, Bolden will be joining up with fellow Australian Simmons in Philadelphia, and while they already have a distant connection from when their fathers both played in Australia's NBL back in the 90s, Bolden says he looks forward to forging a closer bond with his compatriot.

"We're in contact," Bolden says. "When I got drafted last year, we exchanged numbers, and then when I went up to Philly after the draft he was there."

If Bolden is looking to build immediate rapport with the reigning Rookie of the Year, he might need to buy a PlayStation.

Simmons is a keen gamer, and with Fortnite the current survival-shooter game of choice, Bolden acknowledges that he'll need to migrate away from his current gaming system.

"I'm pretty good at Fortnite, yeah," Bolden quips.

Good enough to beat Simmons?

"Most likely," he smiles. "But he plays on PlayStation and I play on Xbox."

The smile doesn't linger long, though. Having been up since 5am, "grinding", as his father says, it's clear Bolden's immediate focus is on Philadelphia. Once he flies back to the U.S. next week, Fortnite will be the last thing on his mind, and his "different" journey to the NBA will enter its next chapter.

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