Adem Bona's Situation Continues to Complicate His Evaluation
Adem Bona is one of the most athletically gifted and versatile defenders in the country. However, the messy situation with UCLA continues to muddy his evaluation.
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Situations, for better or worse, can completely skew a player’s evaluation, role, production, and perception. Fit and landing spot always matter when it comes to the NBA draft, but too frequently those aspects get overlooked when prospects are being scouted. In the right situation, a mediocre prospect can look like an All-American, while in the wrong one, someone who could be a lottery talent barely looks like a first round pick. Over the last two seasons, we’ve seen the fit for Adem Bona at UCLA be both absolutely perfect and painfully miserable, which begs the question: what the hell do we do with his evaluation for the 2024 NBA Draft?
Last season, Bona was in a rather ideal situation. He was an infusion of energy, athleticism, and general chaos into an experienced team. Bona was insulated by the experience and versatility of Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark (before he got hurt), and David Singleton. Bona wasn’t asked to do much of anything on offense other than rim run and offensive rebound. On defense, Bona’s athleticism enabled UCLA to run a blitz-heavy scheme defending the pick-and-roll as those experienced veterans consistently rotated and tagged rollers long enough to allow Bona to show (and switch in some cases) and recover.
This year, though, Bona is one of the most experienced players on the roster. UCLA took a big bet on international freshmen, and it hasn’t come close to paying off. What’s more frustrating, though, is that this team is still playing nearly the same style on defense as they were last season with a ton of experienced and versatile players. Bona is still being asked to apply copious amounts of pressure in the pick-and-roll, but now he doesn’t have that consistent weak side help that he had last year. Instead, teammates are consistently leaving the paint completely unoccupied while he’s asked to pressure the ball well behind the perimeter. Additionally, Bona having the second-highest usage rate on the team is a recipe for disaster. We wanted to see what else he had to offer on offense, but by no means should it have ever run through him like it currently is. This UCLA season has been an outright disaster, and Bona isn’t totally free of blame either. Despite all of their issues, Bona has still shown some encouraging signs of growth and versatility. So, again, what the hell do we do with him in this year’s draft?
Last season, I viewed Bona as one of the most versatile and impactful defensive centers in the country. His motor, athleticism, and versatility were exceptionally rare. He was able to blitz and recover, protect the rim, and switch on the perimeter. While their current scheme and lack of execution have led to more head-scratching film this season, defense is still the main calling card for Bona.
Currently, Bona has a block rate of 9.9, a steal rate of 2.9, a defensive rebounding rate of 18.8, and a defensive BPM of 4.2. Since 2008, per Barttorvik, there have only been 13 other players from a true high major conference to hit those marks, four of whom are from this season. While this has been a rather rare benchmark to hit, it isn’t a guarantee of NBA success, as there are a mix of NBA players and guys who never made the league. However, when we narrow that list of 13 players down to just freshmen and sophomores, the only remaining names are Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Ryan Dunn (this year), Adem Bona (this year), and Efe Abogidi. By no means am I saying that Bona is going to reach the heights of those guys, but it’s a pretty good list to be on.
To further illuminate the impact that Bona has on defense for UCLA, let’s look at his defensive rating. Per Hoop Explorer, UCLA has a defensive rating of 93.4 when Bona is on the court, which ranks 15th. When Bona is off the court, though, UCLA’s defensive rating jumps to 107, which ranks 220th. There are always other factors that go into on/off differentials, but when the gap is that substantial, it is rather telling.
If you don’t love defensive numbers, which I can understand, let’s run through the tape as well. Here, Marquette runs an empty corner pick-and-roll. Consistent with their scheme over the last two seasons, Bona shows pretty aggressively and plays at the level. At first glance, this looks like a lapse on his end as it frees up Oso Ighodaro for a pocket pass. Bona certainly could’ve improved his positioning and stance to more effectively take away that pocket pass, but it’ll end up paying off for him. Since Bona is playing at the level, that means that the low man must be attentive and provide a presence to deter Ighodaro on the roll. Last season, that was Clark or Jaquez. As we can see, though, Bona’s low-man help is still on the opposite block by the time the pass is made and hasn’t started his rotation until Ighodaro is in the lane. Bona’s initial positioning allowed the pocket pass, but it also allowed him to quickly track the ball. Despite being at a disadvantage, Bona uses his athletic tools to recover and block what should be an easy layup.
This time, Bona again shows off his insane ground coverage ability and athletic tools. As California runs a high pick-and-roll, Bona shows, but his teammate doesn’t provide any help on the roller. To the credit of Lazar Stefanovic (#10), Jalen Celestine (#32) is shooting really well this year, so the hesitancy to leave him is understandable. However, when your center is regularly asked to defend 20+ feet from the rim, you have to provide some help to not surrender an open layup. Additionally, Bona needs to do a better job of recognizing the slip by the screener. Their blitz-heavy scheme leaves them vulnerable to slip screens, especially with no weak side help, and Bona’s awareness and processing here aren’t the best. The screener smartly slips the screen, and Bona still proceeds to hedge aggressively. As the ball handler uses his escape dribble, Bona darts to recover to his man who is now just outside the restricted area and no defender within sight. Bona does a tremendous job of even slowing down his man as his contest from behind forces the shot fake. In most situations, the offensive player would still get an easy score. However, Bona’s initial jump wasn’t that reckless as he lands near his man. Additionally, Bona shows off his elite second jump as he immediately springs back up, beats the offensive player off the floor, and blocks the shot.
This time, Bona shows off his footwork and versatility. As the play develops, Bona is hounding the ball on the perimeter. His man initiates the handoff, and Bona seamlessly switches on the guard as his teammate gets hung up on a screen. As the guard attacks, Bona effortlessly slides his feet to cut off the drive, forcing the ball handler to reset. Being the ever-aggressive defender that he is, Bona tries to steal the post entry pass. While he fails at that, he does succeed in initiating a trap and tying up the ball for a jump ball.
Bona still has plenty of fundamental things to clean up in his defense as we saw. His athletic tools and motor are uncommon, and they allow him to be one of the most disruptive defensive playmakers in the country. With that said, he also relies on them too often. By improving his processing speed, situational awareness, and fundamentals, Bona’s defense could still reach incredibly impressive heights. Even if those things don’t take a massive leap, his defensive playmaking is still outrageous in its own right.
Last season, the biggest questions surrounded his offense. These questions weren’t necessarily unwarranted, but they also didn’t necessarily tie to who Bona is as a player. Questioning whether or not Bona can shoot, have the offense run through him, create for others, or create his own shot are all fair. For what it’s worth, the answer to all of those looks like a no, and that’s OK. Too frequently we got caught up on the idea that every prospect has to be whatever the All-NBA version of their position is. So, no, Bona isn’t going to be Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid, but who out there is?
The odds are that Bona’s most likely outcome in the NBA is as a backup or rotation center. He has the potential for a bigger role if he lands in the right situation, but let’s go with the likeliest outcome, which is still a really positive career and return on a draft pick. When we look at the centers who play 20 minutes or fewer, the bulk of them are asked to do very little on the offensive end. So, even though Bona’s offensive game is still very limited, it’s nowhere near the level that should completely keep him out of the league.
Bona’s offensive role should be a minimal one. What we’ve seen this year is that it can’t, and shouldn’t, run through him. Last season, when Bona was purely a complementary piece, he had a usage rate of 16.9. That’s very low, but it also led to much higher efficiency as he had an effective field goal rate of 67.5, scored 1.058 points per possession (PPP) (90th percentile) per Synergy, and UCLA had an offensive rating of 115.1 with him on the court (ninth percentile). This season, Bona’s usage has skyrocketed to 25.5, his effective field goal rate has dropped to 58.9 (still good), overall PPP has dropped to 0.964 (64th percentile), and UCLA’s offensive rating with him on the court is 100.2 (265th).
These numbers, combined with his current assist and turnover rates of 7.2 and 24.2 respectively, are rather damning and paint Bona in a rather negative light. They are far from ideal, but should they really influence his evaluation that much? Before he got hurt last season, it wasn’t uncommon to see Bona in the back end of the first round. That was when no one really thought he was an offensive force to begin with. Now, Bona is rarely mentioned in the first round in a much weaker draft. All that’s changed is that the mystery (wasn’t much of one) of what his offense could be has been removed.
The biggest change in Bona’s offense this season is that his post-up frequency has risen from 24.5% of his possessions last season to 38% this season. Bona’s scoring efficiency has improved from 0.814 PPP (46th percentile) to 0.945 PPP (62nd percentile), which is great. When Bona is quick and decisive with his moves, he can be really effective. Here, Bona receives the pass and immediately goes to work. He showcases his footwork and balance as he deftly creates a layup.
Unfortunately, Bona is likely never going to be asked to do this in an NBA setting. When he’s decisive, he can be effective, but too often his approach is sloppy, slow to develop, and slow at processing the situation. Here, Bona signals for his teammates to clear out of the strong side and let him go to work. After he initially catches the ball, five seconds run off the clock before he does anything. As he tries to muscle his way to the rim, the slight presence and threat of a help defender coming to double distracts him. Bona fumbles the ball and sparks the transition offense for the opposition.
Again, we see Bona’s struggle with processing the situation and making a proper decision. He initially establishes a solid post position, and the defense sends a soft double. Bona proceeds to hold the ball, survey the floor, and do nothing for about four seconds. By the time he finally decides to do something, he tries to make a careless skip pass that both defenders intercept instead of just a simple kickout to the top of the arc.
What this season continues to show us is that Bona should not be put in a position to be a decision-maker or offensive creator. Yet he continues to be put in that position. The fact that his possessions that end in a cut, put back, and as the roll man have all fallen by at least 4% each is a clear sign that he’s being set up to fail. Last season, Bona ranked in at least the 60th percentile in scoring in all three of those categories. This season, he’s in the 40th percentile or lower in all three categories. Bona has proven that he has the athletic tools to be a quality play finisher and even diversify his roll game. When he is put in a position to succeed and keep things simple on the offensive end, the results can, and have, been positive.
Adem Bona still has a lot of room to improve. His processing speed on both ends is inconsistent, and his offensive contributions are minimal. Even though his season has been tumultuous, he is consistently being put in a position to fail. Bona shouldn’t be the cornerstone of a team. However, his athletic tools, unstoppable motor, and defensive prowess should be more than enough to make an NBA roster. This season has shown us that Bona can’t be “the guy.” As we saw last season, though, he can be one hell of a complementary piece.