Joel Bolomboy was raised on dreaming.
When he was four years old, his parents picked up and moved halfway across the world from Ukraine to the United States. At the time, he was an only child. His parents wanted to start a life full of opportunities for their growing family, which would soon accompany Bolomboy with three younger sisters. The best way to do so was to chase the American Dream.
Throughout his life, both personal and on the basketball court, Bolomboy continues to carry that dreamer’s mentality to further himself with the opportunities his parents provided him nearly 20 years ago. To understand the success he’s been able to find on his journey, you first need to understand the route he chose to get there.
For Bolomboy, his path to professional basketball didn’t start with a plastic Fisher-Price hoop and a cliche story of him making his first basket before he could even walk. Playing basketball wasn’t even the first sport he gave his full attention to when growing up.
After moving from Ukraine to Texas, Bolomboy spent his time in adolescence doing a lot of the same stuff every kid in America does. He watched TV a lot, he got acquainted with a skateboard, he tried every sport under the sun. Tennis, track, football, anything to keep him occupied as he became integrated into the American culture. As the 6-foot-10 sweet-shooting big man says himself, “I can play any sport you can think about.”
When the Texas heat became a bit too unbearable for the outdoor sports, though, Bolomboy shifted his focus to basketball. Towering over most middle schoolers at the time, standing at 6-foot-2 in eighth grade, Bolomboy was nudged in the direction of the hardwood by his best friend’s father, Gerald Sledge.
Sledge was the coach at Central High School in Keller, Texas. With his free time, he would come down to Bolomboy’s middle school to try to find players for his team, while simultaneously offering advice and workouts to the students. That’s where it all began for Bolomboy.
“(Sledge) would come in a few times a week,” Bolomboy said. “And like, nobody would go over there except for his son, and his name was Lawrence. So, I was like, maybe I should go over there. You know, I was playing football and I wasn’t really into it just because there were so many guys. It was an outdoor sport and growing up in Texas, it was really hot, always hot. I just felt like it wasn’t for me. So, I just kept going to basketball working on my game. And I just got better and better at and just kind of went from there.”
Go from there, he did. Bolomboy used his size advantage coupled with the natural athleticism he displayed growing up to play his way onto the radar of college basketball coaches around the country. His future in the sport looked bright. Colleges like Florida State and Clemson expressed their interest in signing Bolomboy, but those offers from high-major programs didn’t connect with the high schooler at the time.
Instead, it was mid-major Weber State and Phil Beckner who won the services of Bolomboy, not knowing at the time they were signing a player who would go on to be one of the most decorated in program history.
“Those schools like Florida State,” Bolomboy said. “I remember them telling me that if I go there, they wanted me to be a redshirt my first year. It just didn’t seem right. You know, kind of bigger schools, they felt like they were just kind of hearing about me and came into the picture and they really know, who I was, about my game.
“I think the main reason why I picked Weber State just because the coaching staff they had in place and all the guys that were there, I kind of like them a lot,” Bolomboy said. “And just like, the main reason is because they believed in me and they had a plan for me. They also showed me a long-term plan because they had a guy named Phil Beckner and he’s the one who recruited me and he was really good at developing players. But, Dame, he always says like Coach Phil, the coach who recruited me, he’s the biggest reason why he’s in the NBA. So, I took that into consideration.”
Getting to the NBA is no easy task for any player. Every year thousands of college basketball players line up for a chance to be drafted in one of the 60 slots, and the rest scramble to fill in summer league invites and training camp opportunities. When a player has the pedigree of a Kentucky or Duke, sometimes life is a bit easier in landing that chance.
Coming from Weber State? Well, the work was cut out for Bolomboy.
All he did during his time in college was dominate, though. In 2016, Bolomboy was named Big Sky Player of the Year. He left Weber State as the program’s all-time leading rebounder, too.
The mid-major to NBA road is one less traveled, for sure, but Bolomboy was never worried about that standing in the way of his chances.
“I knew that getting into the NBA would all come eventually,” Bolomboy said. “The main thing for me was to continue to get better and just being stronger. And if you could play, you’re an NBA caliber player, those guys, that’s what they get paid for. Those scouts, they find you out there.”
When Bolomboy made his way to the NBA Draft Combine ahead of the 2016 draft, he found himself around all of those same players from the high-major schools that passed him over. It was his opportunity to prove to himself something he knew all along: that he belonged in the same gym with all of those guys.
“What really put me over the top was when I did all of my athletic testing,” Bolomboy said. “And I felt like I was much better and more explosive than those guys. When we started playing, I was playing good and I was playing better than a lot of those guys. I was finishing at the rim, hitting my three’s, rebounding and doing what I normally do.”
The impressive combine performance led to another dream few ever realize: being drafted into the NBA. In the second round, with the Utah Jazz picking 52nd overall, Bolomboy saw his name pop up on the screen while surrounded by friends and family.
“It was such a good night just to hear my name called,” Bolomboy said. “I teared up and stuff like that just knowing all of my hard work and everything I did, just to hear my name called, it all paid off. It was just the start of everything.”
Once life in the NBA begins, nothing is guaranteed. Unless you’re a first-round pick, the money usually isn’t, either. Getting to the league is a battle in its own right, but the real fight begins once you’re there. For Bolomboy, his journey since seeing his name flash across that screen has been a prime example of that grind.
After spending his rookie season with the Jazz among the likes of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Trey Lyles, opportunities for court time came few and far between. It was in that first season that Bolomboy experienced the back and forth of being on both an NBA squad and a G-League squad; he appeared in 24 games for the Salt Lake City Stars. Spending time down in the G-League helped keep Bolomboy sharp throughout the season.
This season for Bolomboy has been spent primarily in the G-League, with the Wisconsin Herd. Taking the learning experience he gained last year while around the Jazz, the forward has turned in one of the most impressive seasons the developmental league has seen. Averaging 17 points, 10.5 rebounds, and shooting 59 percent from the floor, Bolomboy has once again found himself squarely on the radar of NBA clubs.
With the way the game of basketball is evolving, more big men are asked to step out to the three-point line. After attempting just one three-pointer in his first two years of college, Bolomboy has developed into a legitimate shot-maker from beyond the arc. Last season in the G-League, he made 21 of his 46 attempts.
“Coaches always told me if I’m open to shoot it and don’t even hesitate,” Bolomboy said of his G-League experience last season. “It will make defenses respect you more because for me when I am on the perimeter and for a guy to sag off me two to three feet, that’s disrespectful.”
From Ukraine to America, Bolomboy has developed more than a jump shot. He’s developed the opportunity to succeed, not just on the basketball court, but in life as well. His parents dreamed of a better life when they moved to the United States, and Bolomboy grew up dreaming of a shot at the NBA. Both things have come true, for the most part.
While Bolomboy waits for his next opportunity on the big stage, don’t expect him to just sit around and dream about it, though. He’ll be working harder than ever to make that dream a reality.
“Whoever is going to give me that chance, I won’t let them down,” Bolomboy said. “That’s for sure.”
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