Isaac Bonga is a 6-foot-8, 19-year-old, German prospect. Somewhere, Ernie Grunfeld is drooling at the thought of having Bonga on the Washington Wizards — and luckily for him, Tommy Sheppard found a way to get it done.
Bonga arrived to the nation’s capital after the Los Angeles Lakers needed to create room for Anthony Davis. He, like Jemerrio Jones and Moritz Magner, is largely unknown, even to the biggest of hoop heads.
Instead of digging into the depths of YouTube or reading the dearth of Bonga analysis available on the interwebs, I reached out to resident Bonga expert Alex Regla, who covers the Lakers for Silver Screen & Roll, SB Nation’s Los Angeles Lakers blog.
Alex had the opportunity to chat with Bonga during his brief stint in Los Angeles, and, if the title of his article is any indication, there was a time when Alex was really high on Bonga. After you check out the article, feel free to give Alex a shout on Twitter.
Here’s our Q&A:
Ben Mehic: Alright -- so, unlike most of us, you actually know a lot about Isaac Bonga. You’ve watched him play, wrote a piece on his impressive development, and once thought the Lakers might have gotten a steal. He’s no longer a Laker and played just 120 minutes for the team, and spent most of his time in the G-League. Now that he has a year of basketball under his belt, what can you tell us about Bonga -- lay the foundation, so to speak? He was largely a throw-in in the deal to create room for Anthony Davis. The Lakers couldn’t have possibly thought that highly of him, right?
Alex Regla: First and foremost, I will always have a soft spot for Isaac Bonga. He was the first NBA player I ever had a chance to interview, write a feature on and was -- probably irrationally at the time -- a player I was very high on.
With that divulged, Bonga is a pretty perfect encapsulation of what teams envision players to look like nowadays. He is 6-foot-8, can handle the ball, has shown an ability to defend multiple positions and has instances of exceptional playmaking.
At the time, all indications were the Lakers were indeed fond of Bonga as well. After sending their international scouts to Germany to watch Bonga, on multiple occasions, they traded what was at the time an attractive 2nd rounder from Chicago and cash to Philadelphia in order to draft the 18-year-old.
They also went as far to bring him to the states immediately rather than letting him season a bit more within an international setting and signed him to a multi-year deal. It was clear the club’s scouting department and front office alike were at least outwardly invested in Bonga.
Although showing encouraging flashes with the team’s G-League affiliate squad, he never really had his chance at the professional level as the Lakers were fighting for a playoff spot all season. Thus, making the team’s intrigue and asset allocation on the teenager a perplexing one once LeBron James signed.
BM: I have to say -- the Wizards, at least historically, haven’t been very good at assessing international players. Tomas Satoransky is the only solid international pick they’ve made, at least in recent years. Isaac Bonga was cut from the German national team, and that team is ranked 18th by FIBA. What do you make of that? It worries me (probably an irrational amount).
AR: I think it mostly cements that Bonga is still extremely raw. He has flashed enough physical and basketball skills to garner interest and a level of mystique, but he has yet to put it all together. Which is the case for nearly every player his age.
However, I would point to this as an early indicator for Wizards’ fans that he likely will not come in and be a rotational contributor off the bat. But, considering he was ultimately a throw-in, he is the exact type of flier teams without a deep pool of young talent should take on.
BM: Bonga is 6-foot-8, can play multiple positions -- it’s why he’s an intriguing prospect, I think. The Wizards are completely depleted of talent, so he’ll have an opportunity to get legitimate minutes on the main roster. I’m excited about Point Bonga, but the Wizards haven’t done a great job at handling these types (tall, versatile guards, I mean ... see: Satoransky) either. What position is he -- or does he really lack one? Is Point Bonga a myth (he had 88 turnovers in the G-League, compared to 84 assists)?
AR: From the film, and watching Bonga play in person, he seems most comfortable with the ball in his hands — mainly, because at this stage of his career he is a tad awkward off the ball in terms of positioning, when to cut and having an inconsistent 3-point stroke.
Instead of classifying him within a traditional position slot (point-guard, small forward, etc) I feel Bonga is best suited as a wing-creator. A player who can run primary pick and roll actions, but also drive and kick for his teammates. As mentioned earlier, he has great passing feel which he leverages through his height, giving him the ability to look over the top of defenses and find passing angles and windows smaller creators are not privy to.
With that said, the turnovers like you mentioned proved to be a legitimate weakness. He has a loose handle, is not the most fluid athlete and can get too ambitious at times with his reads. It is difficult to project how much of these errors were a result of attempting to do too much, or a result of adapting to a new style of play or the unfamiliarity that comes with G-League teams who swap in and out players on a weekly basis at times.
BM: You mentioned 3-point shooting as something Bonga worked hard to develop, and he showed flashes of being a knock-down shooter. Washington needs a lot of things -- shooting being atop that list. How far along is he as a shooter?
AR: When speaking to Bonga, and at the time of my feature, he was in the process of shooting a blistering 48.5 percent from three (on nearly five attempts a game) and was in the 91st percentile of the G-League in catch and shoot opportunities. His jumper, and his confidence letting it fly, was something he specifically told me had worked on all summer.
As expected, Bonga cooled off, finishing the year at around 34 percent from beyond the arc — a still, respectable number on what many believe will be a swing skill in terms of his development. As mentioned previously, he has decent on-ball equity as a creator but will need to prove able to stretch the floor effectively to find success at the professional level.
It is unclear how much of Bonga’s shooting success was legitimate, but he definitely took positive strides in that area compared to his tepidness during his first summer league and preseason action.
BM: I kind of hate these questions, but they’re admittedly fun. What’s Bonga’s ceiling -- like, if everything went according to plan and he exceeds all expectations? Go crazy. Tell me he’s the next Giannis.
AR: Look Ben, I wish I could tell you he is going to be the next Giannis. Honestly, I do. Unfortunately, I do not think it’s in the cards for Bonga-mania.
However, I think a more realistic high-end ceiling outcome for him could come in a Shaun Livingston mold, with potentially more range. Similarly physically built, and a positional tweener, there are semblances of the reliable guard in Bonga’s game and I think that would be a wonderful outcome for him and Wizards’ fans alike.
BM: Here’s the floor -- pitch us on Bonga (or tell us that he’s the worst). It’s all yours. What should we know about Bonga?
AR: On every team, and for every fan, I think it is important to have at least one player to have irrationally high hopes for. Bonga was that player for me as I am a sucker for those who have awkward fits on the floor, clear weaknesses but able to flash a single play that hooks you enough to think there is a diamond waiting to be unearthed.
For the Wizards, who I assume are nearing rebuild mode, having players like Bonga, and Moe Wagner and Jemerrio Jones (you are going to absolutely love him, trust me) is the smart move. Get attached, be optimistic and maybe he will turn out to be worth all of the intrigue he once garnered from the Lakers’ brass.
At the end of the day he was dropped on your laps, and he is now yours to nurture and watch grow.