Adama-Alpha Bal: Santa Clara's Next Draft Darling?
Santa Clara has produced consecutive first-round picks in Brandin Podziemski and Jalen Williams. Can junior guard Adama-Alpha Bal make it three in a row for the WCC program?
In the last two NBA draft classes, Santa Clara has produced consecutive first-round selections, with Brandin Podziemski and Jalen Williams, for the first time in the team’s history. Both surged up the ranks while thriving in a featured role for the Broncos, becoming the darlings of draft Twitter, and ultimately ending up as Top 20 picks. Herb Sendek’s staff has shown the ability over the past couple of seasons to help players develop into bonafide pro prospects—specifically with Podziemski and Williams. Incoming Arizona transfer Adama-Alpha Bal will look to continue that trend for the program this summer.
Bal’s path mirrors Podziemski’s much more than Williams’s, mainly from the standpoint that both were highly touted recruits who went to major programs that didn’t necessarily allow them to flourish or showcase their skills early. In two seasons at Arizona, Bal appeared in 49 games and played just 6.5 minutes in those contests. He got lost in the shuffle of the rotation for Tommy Lloyd’s crew down in Tucson, but that hasn’t been an issue at all at Santa Clara.
The young Frenchman has started his junior campaign off scorching hot. Bal is leading the way atop the WCC, currently ranking Top 5 in the conference in total points (271), points per game (15.9), true shooting percentage (64.5%), free throw percentage (88.2%), free throw attempts (76), points produced (253), and offensive rating (122.6). He’s been the focal point and lifeblood of the Broncos offense this season, shining as their primary creator. The production and efficiency have many scouts, analysts, and pundits alike believing Bal is the next first round talent to come out of Santa Clara. However, I’m not so sold on that notion myself.
I like Bal’s offensive potential, which we will touch on later, and in a weaker class like this 2024 group, it could easily see him landing in the first round. His scoring ability, size, and shotmaking alone will put him in that discussion. It’s the other end of the floor though, where I think Bal has a lot of growth to do. Defensively, there is a significant gap between where he’s currently at in his development and where both Podziemski and Williams were during their evolution to become NBA players.
Now, I by no means think Bal is hopeless as a defender, but he’s rough around the edges in many ways. He’s got great length physically, which is the predominant thing he relies on to cover up some of his other deficiencies. His on-ball defense and screen navigation are the main two things that will turn him into a cooked chicken at the next level. Per Synergy Sports, Bal is in the 39th percentile in points per possession rank and 50th percentile in points per shot rank defensively. Those numbers simply aren’t going to cut it for a projected first round pick, in my opinion.
You’ll see Bal in the video below constantly struggling to get through screens, which forces him to always play behind his man on their hip, usually leading to easy driving lanes and scoring opportunities for whoever he’s guarding. He has real trouble getting through traffic, where he often puts his teammates in two-on-one scenarios. This also makes him an easy target on switches, as once he gets put on a big, they will either bully Bal for post-positioning, seal him off from the driving lane completely, or get an easy shot at the rim because he’s too late rotating over to them.
Additionally, Bal’s lack of first-step quickness can hurt him defensively. Smaller guards like Bruce Thornton, Donovan Dent, and Darius Brown II all took advantage of this, while Bal was defending them off the dribble. His lack of fundamentals only accentuates this problem, as Bal tends to hunch over in his defensive stance rather than trying to sit as low as possible. If you can’t stay stuck to your man and also aren’t all that quick, staying on an NBA floor is going to be difficult.
I realize this all probably can come off as extremely nitpicky, but these are clear flaws that Bal must improve on if he wants to elevate himself as a legitimate first-round-level prospect. His lack of physical strength, elite quickness, poor awareness, and discipline shows up too frequently on the film, for me to suggest he should be viewed similarly to Podzmieski and Williams. However, that doesn’t mean I’m out completely on Bal being an effective pro one day.
Change of Pace
The main sales pitch on Bal’s NBA potential is reliant on the leaps he’s made this season on the offensive end of the floor. His three-level scoring ability has been on full display, and the craft at which he can get to the rim is frankly beautiful to watch at times. While he might not be the fleetest of foot, Bal’s still managed to be a nightmare for opposing defenders to contain off the dribble. Per Synergy, the Le Mans, France native is currently in the 82nd percentile in points per shot rank on off-the-dribble jumpers, the 83rd percentile on shots at the rim, and the 89th percentile on points per possession rank overall offensively.
His handle is smooth, and he does a great job of utilizing the change of pace to his advantage. Bal’s bread and butter is preying on defenders off high ball screens. He’ll ease his man into the screen to just set them up with a filthy hesitation move or long crossover dribble, then speed up to explode by for the finish. At the rim, Bal isn’t deterred by contact, has great body control, and is one of the better off-hand finishers in the class. His ability to slow the game down to his speed and get to the spots on the floor he favors the most is impressive.
The tools Bal possesses attacking the in-between game as a mid-range scorer only add to what he can do as a slasher. Standing at 6’7” and sporting a reported 6’11” wingspan, Bal’s got the size to get his shot off over pretty much any opposing guard. In the highlights above, you see Bal consistently knock down tough pull-up mid-range jumpers or hit a silky floater over air-tight defense. The fact he’s shown he can extend that range out to the three-point line as well has been an exciting wrinkle to watch Bal include in his arsenal.
There are two particular clips above, in Santa Clara’s games against Oregon and Stanford where Bal hits a pair of stepback threes, one over Jackson Shelstad and the other over Maxime Raynaud. Both shots encompass the smoothness of Bal’s shotmaking and how unbothered he is by even the best contests from whoever is guarding him. The fact Bal is shooting at an efficient clip on a high volume from beyond the arc should encourage evaluators. He’s currently shooting 41% from the three-point line on a healthy 4.6 attempts per game. Per Synergy Sports, Bal’s also in the 86th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers, and he’s shot 44% on catch-and-shoot threes this season. Those are great indicators of the upward trajectory Bal continues to make as a perimeter threat.
Rounding out Bal’s bucket-getting versatility is how easily and routinely he gets to the charity stripe. A scorer who can make the defense pay at the foul line will always be valued in today’s NBA game. Bal’s 43.7% free throw attempt rate is stellar, and as mentioned previously, he converts those attempts at a ridiculously high rate. Even though I may not fully buy in on the idea of Bal being a pro-ready defender, I think it’s undeniable that his shot-creation skills are tailor-made for the league. He’s going to be able to feast out of high ball screens, DHOs, and Chicago actions at the next level.
The other layer of Bal’s offensive repertoire that I’m at least intrigued by is his playmaking potential. I don’t believe that Bal’s capable of being the primary creator for an NBA offense at the moment; his passing chops aren’t at that level. This is also another aspect of his game that puts him a step below Podziemski and Williams as a prospect in my eyes. The analytics don’t help Bal’s case much in this regard either. Both Podziemski and Williams had an assist percentage greater than 20% and a turnover percentage of less than 12.5%, whereas Bal’s are both sitting at around 18%. I don’t think he’s got the vision or feel they’ve got as passers.
However, I like what Bal can do as a connector with his passing skills and how he creates out of high or side pick-and-rolls. Per Synergy, Bal is in the 92nd percentile in points per possession rank as a pick-and-roll ball handler. As you’ll watch in the video compilation below, He can effortlessly find open shooters creating out of these situations and is a good swing passer. Bal’s got the capacity to be a secondary or tertiary playmaker at the next level, I just am hesitant to believe he can become a heliocentric (I hate myself for using this word by the way) engine for an NBA rotation.
Is Bal Santa Clara’s Next Draft Darling?
I’ll end this piece with the question I presented in the title; Is Adama-Alpha Bal going to become Santa Clara’s next draft darling to get selected in the first round? At this point, I’m sure you can guess that the answer to that question for me is no. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean I’m out entirely on Bal as a prospect, especially in what is a watered-down year.
His scoring ability is up there with anyone in this 2024 class, which will get him first-round grades from some NBA scouts and front offices. For a franchise looking for bigger guards that can handle the ball, get to the rim, score at every level, and shoot with efficiency, Bal’s their guy. But he doesn’t have the two-way dynamism I normally like seeing from possible first-round talents.
I would still have no problem taking a flier on him though, in the latter portion of the first round. He’s pretty firmly a top 40ish prospect on my board at the moment, and I don’t see that changing much over the next few months. It’s also probably a good thing for evaluators to finally learn to not bet against the latest Santa Clara sleeper.