Breaking Down Adem Bona's Defense | The Friday Screener
Adem Bona's defense, motor, and athleticism could make him one of the top centers in the 2023 NBA Draft class.
The 2023 NBA Draft class is showing that it may be lacking the elite center talent that we hoped for entering the season. Most of these prospects have engendered more questions than answers due to their erratic play. For what it’s worth, that’s fine. Playing center is really difficult. However, when some fall, others inevitably rise. One of those enticing risers could be UCLA Bruins freshman Adem Bona.
Bona isn’t exactly some sleeper prospect, as he was a five-star recruit (17th overall for ESPN) out of Prolific Prep. However, Bona wasn’t necessarily considered a surefire one-and-done prospect either. Bona has an incredible motor and fascinating athletic tools, but his overall game was widely considered to be extremely raw. In some cases, it still is, but Bona’s defense is proving to be much more effective and consistent than initially thought.
So far this draft cycle, Bona hasn’t garnered a ton of attention because his offensive numbers are rather pedestrian. Averaging 8.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game on 65/0/63.5 shooting splits doesn’t exactly scream “LOOK AT ME, I’M AN NBA PLAYER.” He’s effective and efficient at his job, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much more than what we’ve seen.
Bona’s offense is equivalent to potato chips. They’re effective at what you need them for, they serve a purpose, and when you don’t have any, you wish that you did. However, they are easily replaced, they don’t necessarily change or elevate your meal, and there are a lot of different brands that, in essence, do the same thing. Bona’s defense, though, has the potential to be filet mignon.
Bona has one of the highest motors in all of college basketball, which turns him into a tenacious defender when combined with his athletic gifts. Bona has the strength to defend in the post, the explosiveness to protect the rim, and the footwork and agility to switch on the perimeter. Bona regularly displays a sound understanding of verticality and gets in a low defensive stance like a guard. When Bona is on the court, UCLA has a defensive rating of 85.9 (second in the country). When he leaves the court, this jumps to 96.2 (42nd in the country). Bona is also only one of 13 players from true high major conferences to have a block rate of at least 7.5 and a defensive box-plus-minus of at least 3.5 (other names include Johni Broome, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Colin Castleton, Kadin Shedrick, Dylan Disu, and more). He’s also the only freshman in that group.
Before we get into the exciting stuff, let’s first look at where Bona needs to improve. Despite my gushing, there are aspects that still need plenty of work. There’s a reason he’s often labeled as a raw prospect.
The first defensive inconsistency with Bona is his drop coverage. There is a lot to like but plays like this are more common than they should be; however, they can be corrected in time. As Kerr Kriisa attacks the screen, Bona is in fine position. However, Azuolas Tubelis immediately slips the screen and pops to the top of the arc. This move allows Bona’s teammate to stay in front of Kriisa and should trigger Bona’s recovery. Bona is slow to process this, though. His late recovery gives Tubelis an open driving lane and forces the rotating defender to foul to prevent the foul.
With more experience, Bona should be able to clean up his positioning and processing speed. Something that may be a little trickier to correct is his propensity to gamble. Bona is a big fan of highlight plays. This frequently tends to work in his favor, but when he misjudges a play, it looks really bad.
Here, Bona is in a typical rim protector’s position with his man in the weakside dunker spot. Bona knows that Tyger Campbell is on a bad matchup, so he tries to aggressively help once the entry pass is made. Instead of walling up and forcing the kickout, though, Bona goes for the ball. He’s a step late and gives up the dunk.
Bona is prone to having one to two possessions like these per game. They aren’t necessarily killers, but they will drive a coach crazy. Thankfully, there’s a lot more good than bad.
When you see Bona, it’s obvious that he’s extremely strong and eager to use it defending the post. Here, Bona gets physical with Tubelis and forces him to catch the post-up entry pass almost at the three-point line. Tubelis is an experienced post scorer who ranks in the 69th percentile, per Synergy. Bona couldn’t care less. After getting the ball, Tubelis spends the next eight seconds trying to create a shot. Bona does a tremendous job of holding his ground, staying vertical, and moving his wide base to prevent Tubelis from turning on him. Bona’s resistance clearly frustrates Tubelis, and it holds him up long enough for Jaylen Clark to dive in for the steal.
Bona’s overall positioning and work rate in the post are admirable. He is not afraid to get dirty, doesn’t back down from anyone, and does a great job of denying the ball and repositioning himself. Here, Bona initially denies the post entry pass but is on the wrong side of his man as the ball swings around the arc. Bona should be sealed off here, but he does a tremendous job of repositioning to get back to the front of the rim. This effort puts him in a great position to two-hand swat the floater attempt.
This time, Bona does a good job of running back in transition but finds himself in a spot where he should get sealed off once the skip pass is made. Instead of quitting on the play, though, Bona again fights over and uses his verticality to force the miss.
Bona’s motor isn’t reserved solely for defending the post, either. We frequently see it with him defending in space and in transition. Here, Bona is behind the outlet pass by a good ten feet. Very few centers would even bother trying to catch up, let alone get there. Bona had other ideas, though, as he catches the outlet pass and turns away what should’ve been an easy two points.
Defending NBA spacing can be an absolute nightmare, especially for centers who are slow to react as weakside rim protectors. They have to constantly have their head on a swivel, time their contests perfectly, and utilize verticality to not foul on shots that they can’t block. Bona’s understanding and effectiveness of weakside rim protection have been incredibly encouraging for what he could become as an NBA-level defender.
Here, Bona is on the weakside corner and promptly initiates the switch so he can stay in the post. As the ball swings, Bona quickly recognizes that Clark is getting sealed off by the post-up and that the ball-handler has a clear baseline drive. Bona’s quick reactions allow him to meet the ball-handler outside of the restricted area and elevate straight up to force the miss without fouling.
This time, Bona has the courage to pick up the ball on the perimeter in transition. The ball-handler uses a solid jab step to get Bona leaning one way before driving the other. Bona utilizes a subtle little push on the hip and quick feet to force the drive a little wide, allowing Bona to stay between the ball and the rim. As the ball-handler stops, Bona does a good job of staying grounded and reading the play. This allows him to read the pass to the cutter (even though it’s right in front of him, his timing is excellent) and implement his verticality to force the miss.
Besides being a menace around the rim, Bona has also shown the rare ability to move in space. He is significantly more agile than most players his size and isn’t afraid of switching. This ability will give his team much more flexibility in the defensive schemes they can run with him on the floor.
Bona tends to meet most pick-and-rolls at the level, which can leave UCLA vulnerable if the ball-handler denies the screen and beats the point-of-attack defender. Spoiler, but that’s what happens here. Bona’s positioning is fine, but Campbell gets beat on the drive. In most cases, this results in a layup. However, Bona immediately recognizes the drive, bolts to recover, and pins the ball on the glass.
This time, Bona quickly presses the opposing center at the top of the arc before switching. Bona shades his new assignment to the right and moves his feet perfectly to cut off the drive. Bona’s footwork not only allows him to cut off the drive, but also allows him to recover and deter the step-back jumper. After the pass, Bona again switches—this time onto the very quick Frankie Collins. Having apparently not paid attention to what just happened, Collins attempts a feeble step-back that Bona blocks.
Bona’s ability to combine and utilize all of his special defensive and physical traits in all areas of the floor on a single possession is really exciting. Here, Bona is playing ball denial all the way out to halfcourt. As his man repositions, Bona transitions into playing drop coverage against the pick-and-roll. As his man slips the screen, we can see Bona pointing to Campbell to stay with the ball-handler as Bona moves to stay with the screener. Campbell is incapable of staying rim side and points for help, so Bona immediately pivots and drops with the ball-handler to force the kickout. Now that he’s back to being a rim protector, Bona opens his body so he can see nearly all of the floor. The one spot he can’t see is the player in the opposite side corner who makes a delightful cut. Bona tracks the ball perfectly, though, and uses his quick leaping ability to swat away the shot.
Coming into the season, there wasn’t a ton of clamor for Adem Bona to be a one-and-done prospect in the 2023 NBA Draft. He is still very raw in numerous parts of his game, but his defensive impact is undeniable. Bona can aptly defend all three levels of the floor and is typically the hardest-working player on the court. Even if his offense doesn’t develop into a significant role, he could grow into a player that an NBA team builds its defense around.