Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. One can be seen as a long-term prospect with a high ceiling one day, only to be seen as a trade chip the next. Not all raw prospects would get the “rope” that “years-away” players like Bruno Caboclo had, and sometimes, it takes the right situation for them to blossom. For Isaac Bonga, it’s been a bumpy NBA journey after starting his career in places not ideal for a development project like him.
Bonga had a decent season for the South Bay Lakers, where he played with Svi Mykhailiuk during their rookie season. He was a lanky 6’8” point forward that alternated flashes of court vision and carelessness with the ball. Bonga was determined to work on his perimeter shooting back then, and he shot a modest 34.4% during his lone G League season. Unfortunately, his growth was stunted once he was traded to the Washington Wizards, and they let him go when his contract expired. He then had to fight his way to beat the odds of making the Toronto Raptors’ opening night roster.
Defensively, Bonga’s unlikely to lock anyone down. However, his length, IQ, and activity cause spacing issues for the opposing team. Based on the preseason, he’s good enough to stay in front as an on-ball defender and provide enough resistance. It’s Bonga’s natural fit with the team’s defensive philosophy that stood out during the preseason. He’s very switchable. He demonstrated good defensive reads in making quick rotation decisions and when to gamble by either getting his fingertips on the ball or showing his length to discourage a pass in his zone. Add his nose for the ball and the knack for finding the small opening to grab the rebound; his fit on the defensive end is undeniable.
Offensively is when Bonga’s got a lot of work to do. Actually, let’s not even get into a debate as to what his natural position should be. At this point the question should be — even in position-less basketball — what can he do to score in the half-court set? His offense is non-existent outside of the paint. His handle is very loose for a guard and does not give him the advantage to create separation. Bonga also doesn’t have the quick first step nor explosion to finish his moves. If people get frustrated with Pascal Siakam’s preference to go for a layup than go strong for a dunk, Bonga’s a much more under-the-basket finisher than Siakam.
His saving grace offensively is his ability to make plays— he sees the floor well and can set his teammates up. His IQ also allows him to make those hockey assists and make passes that lead his teammates to a scoring opportunity that initially looked like it wasn’t there.
Now, don’t get me wrong here — Bonga’s not totally scoring challenged. He’s got the basic Euro-step package and utilizes the same spin move that Siakam and OG Anunoby like to use. Bonga’s also got a couple of go-to moves. He likes to go left on a downhill and will finish with a feathery lefty touch, and the other is a sweeping hook shot going to his right that is impossible to block.
Often, the right situation can do wonders for a player. Bonga found a team that values his skill set, size, and effort and is willing to overlook his limitations. Not to take anything away from him, but Bonga was able to show enough in limited minutes on the court and in the training camp that he’s worth a potential year-long look.
On a healthy Raptors roster, Bonga won’t be part of the rotation. However, coach Nick Nurse likes to throw a curveball whenever the Raptors are in a rut. Chris Boucher, Oshae Brissett, and Yuta Watanabe have fulfilled that “curveball” role in the past. Looking at the Raptors’ offensively-challenged roster, I’m pretty sure Nurse would find his team in a rut more than he would like this season. So yeah, there’s a chance for Bonga’s number to get called, and he has to make the most of those minutes.
The Raptors are starting the season with key rotation players injured, namely Siakam and Chris Boucher. While Bonga is not expected to get any of those minutes, that should be enough to move him a few seats closer to get his number potentially called. Outside of that, of course, there’s garbage time.
A G League assignment is a possibility, but Bonga’s tenure (starting his fourth season) makes it hard for the Raptors to easily assign and recall him. We had this situation a few years ago with Bruno Caboclo. He accepted the assignment but had to be buried with the Raptors 905 due to the rule that makes it tedious to assign a player with more than four years of experience.
At this point of Bonga’s career, he needs to start putting things together — enough for the team to keep him for the rest of the season. He has grown into his body (180 lbs. after a trip to a buffet during his rookie year). Bonga’s got the basketball IQ but needs a lot of in-game reps to work on his offensive game. Unfortunately, those minutes will be too few and far between, given the number of good players ahead of him on the roster.