ORLANDO - The Most Improved Player Award goes to the player each year who made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or previous seasons.
Based solely on that definition, is there a player this season that has made a more “dramatic improvement” from his first few years in the league than the Orlando Magic’s Bol Bol? Mostly because of injuries, some doubted he’d even be on an NBA team right now.
The Magic acquired Bol at the trade deadline last season from the Boston Celtics. They also in the deal got P.J. Dozier, whom they immediately waived, a future second round draft pick, and cash considerations. All Orlando surrendered was a 2023 heavily protected second round draft pick. At this point, it’s extremely unlikely that Boston will receive anything from that deal.
Bol at the time of that transaction was recovering from right foot surgery. There were no plans for him to return the rest of that season. The Magic simply wanted to get to know him better and see where he’d be physically by the time free agency hit.
Well, clearly the Magic saw something they liked. They decided to re-sign him in the summer, and now, just 11 games into his Magic tenure, the 7-foot-2, 220-pounder is exceeding all expectations.
Bol is averaging 11.4 points per game, nine more than what he averaged over the 46 games he appeared in with the Denver Nuggets during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons combined. His 75 percent two-point field goal percentage ranks No. 1 in the NBA. He recently posted a career-high 23 points against the Sacramento Kings, and he already has two double-doubles. He didn’t record any of those prior to this season.
“For me, it’s just being aggressive from the start,” he said following the game against the Kings. “Any time I’m aggressive from the beginning of the game till the end, that’s when I play my best.”
Let’s not forget, though, that Bol’s talent was never in question. He was one of the best prospects in the nation coming out of Findlay College Prep in Henderson, Nevada. ESPN had him ranked fourth in 2018 behind eventual Duke stars RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish.
Before injuring his left foot just nine games into his college career with the Oregon Ducks, Bol was widely projected as a top five pick in the draft. Clearly, NBA teams were scared to select him high in the 2019 draft because of durability concerns, causing him to slide to the second round, where the Nuggets acquired his draft rights after the Miami Heat chose him 44th overall.
Bol is not like most 7-footers. His skills are more guard oriented. He has slick movements off the dribble, is a good outside shooter, has nifty footwork, can handle the ball up the court and in transition, and has a soft touch near the basket.
Best of all is that Bol is not a one-side-of-the-floor player. He’s become one of the league’s top shot blockers. He’s totaled 24 rejections so far, fourth most in the league. His father, Manute Bol, was one of the NBA’s best rim protectors during his time in the NBA. He led the association in blocks twice, including in his rookie campaign in 1985-86 with the Washington Bullets.
Playing alongside other bigs hasn’t hindered Bol’s development at all. In fact, he’s had his best moments this season while in the starting unit with Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. – each 6-foot-10.
“He’s got a great basketball instinct,” Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley said of the soon-to-be 23-year-old. “I think there’s so much more that he can show, but the one thing that I really appreciate about him and what he’s done is he’s just accepted whatever we are asking him to do, and he does it willingly. I think that’s a great part about him, just trying to find his way to fit exactly what we are doing.”
While Bol is a more-than-deserving early-season candidate for the Most Improved Player honor, he obviously isn’t the only one high on the list. Among the others who have made tremendous progress are the Utah Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen, the San Antonio Spurs’ Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell, the Memphis Grizzlies’ Desmond Bane, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey, and the Indiana Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton.
Unlike any of those candidates, however, nobody could have possibly predicted that Bol would be in the running – and that’s what makes his early-season candidacy so extraordinary.