The Game and Impact of Adem Bona
By: Anthony Rio
Adem Bona is a 19 year old freshman who has started every game in his one season at UCLA. He will likely be a pro soon, but while he’s at UCLA, he is and will continue to be a difference maker for his team. Bona was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, ranking 18th overall as a 5-star in his 2022 high school class (via 247 Sports Composite Rankings). Despite this and being a McDonald's All-American selection, he still somewhat flew under the radar.
Bona grew up in Nigeria playing soccer before being convinced to try basketball. After a year of playing basketball in Nigeria, he moved to Turkey with his mother to pursue the opportunities the sport presented. After five years in Turkey he moved to the USA, playing at national powerhouse, Prolific Prep in Napa, CA, for his last two years of high school. From the onset of his college career, his play has caught the eyes of many and garnered plenty of attention.
At 6’10” 235 lbs, Bona’s physical presence is palpable from the minute he steps on the floor. Physically, he has it all: height, length, strength, vertical pop, quickness off the floor, change of direction, lateral quickness, straight line speed, acceleration. There really isn’t any physical trait of his that isn’t top-notch. Bona brings rare things to the floor that UCLA hasn’t had in a while, and enables UCLA to reach another level as a team.
UCLA’s identity as a team defensively is to aggressively pressure the ball, making offenses and their ball handlers uncomfortable, to wreak havoc and force turnovers at a higher rate. Of course, it helps tremendously to have elite perimeter defensive playmakers like Jaylen Clark doing this, but an underlying factor in UCLA’s success employing this strategy and mentality is the fact that Bona is UCLA’s back line defender. He protects the rim to clean up any mistakes or beaten perimeter defenders. If UCLA wasn’t confident in their rim protection, the risk of being so aggressive guarding the perimeter would be much steeper. Bona eases those concerns, as his mere presence at the basket makes offensive players think twice and limits opponent rim efficiency and volume. This enabled aggressiveness is evident as UCLA’s steal rate has taken a large jump since last season, and they rank 7th in this category out of all D1 programs through the end of the 2022-23 regular season.
On the defensive end, Bona is able to put a lid on the rim, something UCLA hasn’t had for some time. The closest comparison would be the beloved, late Jalen Hill. Bona has some jaw dropping blocks, and his presence around the rim deters opponents shots at the rim, as he simply changes the thought process of offensive players. Per Synergy, he’s in the 68th percentile as a rim protector in terms of opponent FG%, allowing opponents to convert 42.3% of their rim attempts against him. However, the stunning part is how infrequently opponents take these shots with him as the primary defender, with only 28 possessions this season. This small portion of possessions doesn't factor in the plays he makes as a help defender, but they paint a picture of how good he is at defending the rim.
His quickness off the floor, reactionary athleticism, and bounce are all elite. Beyond his physical traits, he’s such an impressive player because of how instinctual he is on the defensive end. Despite not playing basketball from a really young age, he has great feel and intelligence on the court. As a rim protector, this shows up the most, as he has innate timing when meeting finishers at their apex to block shots.
Additionally, he has proved to be extremely scheme versatile, switching more than adequately when asked to. As seen in the clip below, Bona is exceptionally quick and light on his feet for his size. This ability stands out, as he’s frequently able to contain ball handlers in isolation on an island. Generally, teams just don’t try to force a switch because they recognize it's a losing proposition, as seen below.
Bona’s quickness and movement skills are on display when he is more frequently playing in drop coverage or “hedging and recovering.” His ability to play higher up on screens gives ball handlers' less space, making pull-up jumpers tougher, yet he’s still able to recover to the basket with rare ground coverage ability. The play below exemplifies this, as he takes away a dribble jumper by getting to the level of the screen before racing in retreat to the rim to send away a finish.
Bona moving so well and being such a threat protecting the basket in tandem with UCLA’s other personnel and overall identity has resulted in them finishing the regular season ranked #2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. This elite defense is the team's identity, and it’s what has truly allowed them to separate themselves as the regular season Pac-12 champion and a true national championship contender. Individually, Bona’s impact and contributions on the defensive end can be seen statistically through his “Block Rate” and overall defensive impact measured by Defensive Box Plus/Minus (a catch-all defensive statistic), both of which rank 2nd in the Pac-12 conference.
Offensively, Bona’s game is predicated on effort and athleticism. Running the floor, gobbling up offensive rebounds, rolling hard and finishing around the rim are the staples of his game. He finds himself beating opposing bigs down the floor for easy finishes at the rim frequently. This speed element is unique, allowing UCLA to play both bigger and faster when they want, as compared to previous seasons.
As a screen and roll player, Bona is extremely dynamic. He sets strong and impactful screens to free up ball handlers, and then is a menace rolling downhill. His catch radius, bounce, and body control as a leaper are top-notch, improving UCLA’s “pick & roll” game from past seasons. Lobs to Bona don’t need to be accurate, as he just needs to be given a chance, and he’s usually able to do the rest. In the clip below, Bona rolls, catches an errant pass, and finishes on the way down, making an extremely difficult play look routine.
This gravity and attention he draws from being so dangerous as a roll man opens up looks for shooters, providing them more space and larger shooting windows.
Another area Bona impacts the game offensively is on the glass. He sports a high offensive rebound rate, which is a product of his desire to rebound, vertical pop, length, and overall rebounding radius. When he snatches up offensive boards, his strength and power help him excel finishing putbacks in traffic. Generating extra possessions is a key factor in his positive impact on UCLA's offense.
Bona can bring a pinch of low post scoring, when given the opportunity that previous UCLA bigs such as Cody Riley had. Bona has an extremely strong drop step and loves turning over his left shoulder. As a counter, he also has the righty baby hook in his bag. Though his touch isn’t amazing, the sheer force he plays with in the post makes him solid and able to punish switches when they’re presented. Despite Bona not being much of a jump shooter at this stage, if he catches the ball anywhere near the rim, defenses are practically dead to rights. The next step for him is being able to expand his passing chops out of the post so defenses can’t send help without being punished. In the heatmap below, we can see just how concentrated Bona’s shots are located around the rim.
The last underlying aspect of Bona’s game is the energy level he plays with. His motor and electric athleticism raise the level of intensity of his teammates, making them better. Bona’s highlight plays can swing the momentum of games to ignite or end scoring runs. Whether it be a thundering dunk or block, the jaw-dropping plays he makes can alter the course and trajectory of games like he does below.
Lastly, using BartTorvik’s data, I created a multiple linear regression model with features of offensive and defensive rebound rate, team and opponent effective FG%, turnover rate, free throw rate, 2P%, and 3P% with the response variable notated as BARTHAG. This statistic is an overall metric of how good a team is, and more specifically, how likely they are to beat an “average” D1 team. The metric is derived directly from adjusted defensive and offensive efficiency (also known as rating). The summary of this model showed p-values, for each feature used, with lower p-values corresponding to the factors which are most significant in the catch-all BARTHAG metric.
As seen above, many of the p-values are so small they can’t be represented next to some of the larger p-values. However, three of the features, turnover rate (TOR), opponent turnover rate (TORD), and offensive rebound rate (OREB) had the lowest p-values, all being less than 2e-16. Two of these three factors, OREB and TORD, are metrics that Bona most directly affects, as he’s a great offensive rebounder and his rim protection aids UCLA aggressive defensive style. Thus, the things he brings to UCLA are what help elevate them to be a top team nationally.
It’s unclear how long Bona will remain at UCLA before heading off to the NBA, but he has been a welcomed addition to the Bruins. His presence, in combination with UCLA’s returning core players, vaulted them into being a true national championship contender this past season. After another gut-wrenching loss to bounce the Bruins from March Madness, reality has set in that next year's roster will look significantly different. With many key contributors likely to depart, if Bona decides to stay, it will be interesting to see how his game and role on the team grows.