With less than a week until the NBA draft in New York, Jonah Bolden is one of the most intriguing prospects in the entire class.
The Australian, who decided to forgo his college eligibility to play in Serbia this past season, has leveraged his time in Europe to build expectations leading up to draft night on June 22. He has hoped that his time with FMP Belgrade would help him move up the draft board, as most experts project him as a late second-round pick. Given his success in the Serbian Superleague, where he averaged 12.1 PPG and 6.7 RPG this past season, his management team believes that Bolden could be the surprise of the night and be selected higher than expected. And Bolden tells ESPN that his excitement grows every day.
"There's a new butterfly that adds up every day, you know," Bolden says as he's being fitted for his draft-night suit. "On the day, obviously, I'll have a lot more butterflies, and nerves to some extent, but for me it's going to be pure excitement, joy and happiness."
Bolden arrived in the U.S. earlier this week to work out for NBA teams, having recently signed a two-year deal with Serbian powerhouse Red Star Belgrade, an affiliate of FMP. But his eyes are still firmly set on making the NBA. Bolden's deal with RSB includes an NBA out clause, so it won't hurt his draft placing; it also provides security for Bolden should he somehow not get drafted -- and also for the team that does draft him, as it will have the option of stashing him in Europe if it feels he needs to develop some more. So, just who is this mystery man who decided to leave UCLA early and play in Serbia, where, sources tell ESPN, 28 of the 30 NBA teams sent representatives to watch him play throughout his time in Europe -- with some watching him play upwards of 10 times?
It's a warm Wednesday night in Belgrade, Serbia, and Bolden is going through his pregame routine: He's running through layups, working on post moves and practising his 3-point shooting. The domestic league has reached its climax, with just this game remaining in the regular season. Both Partizan Belgrade and FMP Belgrade have clinched a playoff berth, and they will face each other in a best-of-three series the following week.
Located about 17 kilometres from Belgrade's city centre, FMP's arena would not be out of place in a suburban setting in Australia or America. A sparse crowd slowly makes its way inside the stadium, Zeleznik Hall, where two of Serbia's biggest clubs usually attract a larger audience, according to locals; the long European season has taken its toll on spectators as well, the fans say.
Inside, the smell of stale sweat permeates, but the faint trace of cigarette smoke still lingers, gently reminding you that you are definitely in Europe. The seating is reminiscent of a high school gym -- hard, unforgiving bleacher-style seats -- which belies the status of FMP as the third-largest club in the country, behind Partizan and Red Star.
Bolden has been playing here with FMP for nine months; coming from a prestigious college program like UCLA, the adjustment period to life in Serbia, and the workload that consists of two-a-day practices, was a little daunting initially.
"It's different," Bolden tells ESPN. "It was a transition period for me the first month that I got here. As soon as I went through the physicals it was bang, practice at 9:30 a.m., and right after that you've got lifts, and at night we'd have a full two-hour contact practice. For me, coming from a college system where everything revolves around classes, and we'd have a limit on practices of an hour and a half or two hours once a day, it was a real challenge and a change."
It was a change that was deemed necessary after Bolden felt that his development at UCLA wasn't progressing the way he wanted. He was ruled ineligible to play with the Bruins in his freshman year in 2014-15 due to an NCAA ruling, stemming from his transfer from Australia, that declared him a partial qualifier. He played his sophomore season, scoring 4.6 points and grabbing 4.8 rebounds while averaging 21 minutes per game. After that, he decided to turn pro.
"After two weeks of going back and forth conversing with my father and family, and my coaches, I came to the decision that, for the betterment of my career and my future, I wanted to turn professional," Bolden said.
Marko Jelic, the business partner of Bolden's agent, Daniel Moldovan, said the management team decided the pursuit of a professional career in Europe was essential to helping the player reach his goal. "When we saw that his development [at UCLA] is not what we really expected, we had to make a change," Jelic said. "We had two options: Transfer to another school, or go to Europe."
And so Bolden landed with FMP, a club rich in success, having been founded in 1975 in the working-class neighbourhood of Zeleznik. The organisation has won four National Cups and two ABA League titles; the ABA League is a regional professional competition that features clubs from the former Yugoslavia -- Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
Bolden, who is 6-foot-10 with a 7-4 wing span, can play either forward position, but the European game is different to the style of play in college that Bolden had become accustomed to.
"[In college] I'm like, get the rebound and push [the tempo], let the guards run with me," Bolden said. "Here, a lot of times, the point guard is coming back for the ball and he wants to slow it down and set the plays [up], and call me out for a screen. For me, it was a big adjustment period, I had to take one or two dribbles, if there's no transition, then give it to the point guard and let him run it and stay within the system."
That wasn't the only adjustment to make. The physical nature of European basketball, and playing against seasoned, grown men, highlighted aspects of his game that he had to develop.
"I realised that driving to the rim [in Serbia], that I'd get bumped and I'd be off-balance. Within two or three months, I had to learn to create off the dribble and finish with a lot more contact, and staying on balance."
This isn't the only part of Bolden's game that has improved. "The thing that he really improved here in Serbia, and this is one of the keys of his success: the defence," Jelic said. "Which, all over the world, is really important to become an NBA player."
This improvement is evident in the game against Partizan. Bolden misses a shot from about 17 feet but sprints back like a gazelle and manages to save the transition basket with a left-handed block.
Bolden's dedication to his craft ensured that his management team wasn't alone in noticing the gains he's made while playing in Serbia. In March, he was named the ABA League's top prospect, joining recent winners Dario Saric and Nikola Jokic.
"It's rewarding to see that the work and the decision you made [to go pro] turned out to be the best decision," Bolden says. "Seeing their names, I didn't know they had won it previously, so seeing that confirmed that my decision was the best that I could make."
Jonah Bolden was born to play basketball. It may sound cliché, and it took Bolden a few years to realise his calling, but everything happens for a reason. He played many sports as a child, but he realised at age 10 that basketball was his life. "Mondays was basketball, Wednesdays was soccer, and tennis on a Friday. Not only did I have to make a choice, that's how I ended up [with basketball] and felt like this is what I was born to do."
Bolden gravitated to basketball almost by osmosis. His father, Bruce, played in the National Basketball League in Australia, and his 17-year career took the family from Melbourne to Sydney and West Sydney. Bolden was around his dad's daily routine at each stop. Whenever he wasn't at school or with his mother, he was immersed in basketball and his father's work environment.
"Every time I walked out the door heading to practice or heading to a game, he always wanted to be right there with me going to practice, or going to the game, or individual workouts or even the weight room, for that matter," Bruce Bolden told ESPN.
Despite his standing within the basketball community in Australia, Bruce never pushed his son into hoops. It happened organically, fostered through a love of the game.
"I didn't want him to feel pressure from me, or pressure from people around me being a professional ball player over here," Bruce Bolden said. "I wanted him to gravitate to the game, enjoy the game, and wherever it took him, great."
Jonah Bolden began to take the game much more seriously, beginning in Bankstown, New South Wales, transitioning into representative teams, moving up through the system as he grew older. Rising up the ranks, he gained more knowledge about the game of basketball, and as his physical skills improved, so did his basketball IQ. Still, some of his hardest battles were fought at home.
Bolden and his father would play one-on-one in the backyard of every house they lived at, Bruce making certain they always had a hoop in the backyard. The games got physical, with Bruce wanting to pass on to Jonah the knowledge that he'd accumulated in 19 years of professional basketball. Bruce Bolden was a blue-collar, physical player during his time in the NBL, so he wanted his son to understand that basketball at the highest level would involve some physical play. During their games, he'd lay a forearm on Bolden or even drop a shoulder into him, but each time he'd just give the ball back to his son to restart.
"Yep, that's a foul on me, let's play ball," Bruce would say.
"I wanted him to understand that the game can be physical, and he's gotta play through that instead of looking over to the ref, or looking to his coach for that acknowledgement of, 'Hey, that's a foul.' I tried to make sure he knew the game was tough, and prepare him for that."
Eventually, at age 16, Jonah Bolden beat his father. It was inevitable. Bolden, who is still growing into his body but is already much more athletic than Bruce, says it felt "great" to finally beat his dad.
"I dunked on him, actually," Bolden says. "He was cool about it."
Bruce Bolden's influence on his son's game extends to his on-court aesthetic as well. Watch Bolden move on the court, or shoot the ball and you'd be forgiven for questioning whether you were actually watching his father. The similarities are scary. From an early stage, Bruce Bolden made a conscious effort to ensure his son's mechanics were correct.
"My jump shot was my asset, so I made sure to point out to Jonah whenever he didn't have his elbow tucked in, or whenever he didn't have his footwork right, or whenever he didn't have his knees bent," Bruce Bolden said. "That was pretty much instilled in him very early. Whenever we were on our own -- him shooting and me rebounding -- I was definitely correcting him on his ballhandling and shooting technique."
Bruce Bolden still wanted his son to play for the love of the game, and he wasn't in the mindset of planning out long-term goals. Eventually, however, Bolden's immense talent, coupled with his insatiable work ethic and drive, convinced his father that he had a bona fide chance of becoming a professional basketball player.
"I knew he could do it one year after he came back from playing AAU and the adidas Nations [tournament] with the Institute of Sport under Ian Stacker," Bruce Bolden said. "I just saw a totally different Jonah, a different mindset. I saw a totally different workout regime. From that point on, it wasn't a case of me asking him, 'Do you want to go work out today?' He was the one saying, even from the night before, 'Dad, what are you doing tomorrow? Because I want to work out.'"
Draft nights are unpredictable.
Often, players projected high are taken lower, and players projected low sometimes surprise when a team selects them sooner than expected. And sometimes, a diamond in the rough is uncovered by a team using a later pick.
The San Antonio Spurs selected Manu Ginobili with the No. 57 pick in the 1999 draft, while Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas was selected dead last in 2011 by the Sacramento Kings. To put it succinctly, sometimes it doesn't matter where you're drafted as long as you make the most of your opportunity. Bolden is hoping he'll be a team's diamond in June.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Bolden said. "Only 60 guys get to hear their name called, so for me to [potentially] get that opportunity, it's a blessing."
Before he can get the opportunity to hear his name called, though, Bolden will undertake his solitary workout for NBA teams in Los Angeles this weekend. Workouts can be an exhausting process, especially after a full season playing in Europe, and teams will ask about personality and other seemingly arbitrary things. In the end, it will come down to basketball.
Bolden's American teammate at FMP, Isaiah Austin, went through the NBA draft workout process in 2014, and knows exactly what awaits the Australian in Los Angeles. He believes his teammate is more than up for it.
"He asked me what to expect, and I told him, 'Basketball, bro," Austin told ESPN. "He doesn't have character problems, so what it's going to come down to for him is basketball. How tight are your moves? How tight are your skills? How good are you at taking care of your body? From what I've seen, he's excelled at all those things. I know from the middle of the season [in Serbia] to now, the guy just keeps going. He's crazy, he's nonstop."
Bolden appears to be entering the NBA at the right time for someone with his skill set. Versatile guys who can play both ends are at a premium, and teams are more likely to take a chance on him because of that.
No matter where he goes in the draft, Bolden believes he can help a team straight away if given the opportunity. "My ultimate goal is to be a small forward," he says. "With my skill set I believe I can play the D to guard a small forward, and utilise my handles for my height, and my shooting ability."
Bruce Bolden is certain his son's versatility will surprise more than a few people. "Taking on that defensive side of things, that's something I'm really proud of him that he's done. Offensively he's got an arsenal [but] defensively, I'm impressed that every time there's a defensive challenge where there might be an on-ball screen and he's switched onto the point guard, he's taken that on and is more than capable of holding his own."
If you watch Jonah Bolden for a prolonged period of time -- his interactions with teammates, how he plays in a game, how he takes care of his body on and off the court -- you understand his desire to be an NBA player. He's not letting the draft experts' late-second-round projections affect his preparation for the draft. It's all a part of the journey.
That final regular-season game with FMP is part of the journey, too. They are soundly beaten by Partizan despite a second-half comeback. Bolden, much like his teammates, has an off night and just can't get into a rhythm.
He could have second-guessed going pro, maybe he'd be projected higher if he had stuck it out at UCLA and been in the national spotlight during March Madness, but the decisions he's made to this point are the decisions that he had to make.
"I look at [playing in Serbia] as an advantage," Bolden said. "Going back to the States, it's prepared me and gotten me in the best shape I've been in. Look back 12 months ago, I wasn't on any [draft] boards. So for me, I've always been that underdog that people sleep on."
Suited up for the draft, suited up to play in the NBA, Bolden has no plans of slowing down, no plans of accepting anything less than what he believes is his destiny.
Watch the 2017 NBA draft live on ESPN in Australia and New Zealand at 9 a.m. (AEST) on June 23.