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2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Mo Bamba a unicorn, or is he the draft’s most likely bust?

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The first time I ever saw Mo Bamba play in person I remember coming away fairly unimpressed.

He blocked a few shots and he had the presence in the paint of, as one high-major coach put it, “a dinosaur”, but I distinctly remember sitting next to a longtime scout in a gym during an EYBL event and telling them I was not impressed, that I didn’t get the Bamba hype.

“I want to see him against someone that isn’t a stiff,” I said.

“Rob. That’s Jaren Jackson he’s playing.”

And that was my introduction to Bamba-mania.

A 7-foot-0.5 center with a 7-foot-10 wingspan — which will be the longest in the NBA as soon as he steps onto an NBA court — Bamba’s ability as a game-changing defensive presence is at the core of what makes him such an appealing prospect. He finished with freshman season with a block rate of 13.2, averaging 4.9 blocks per 40 minutes and anchoring a Texas defense that finished the year ranked 12th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They were top five for the entire season before Texas Tech and Nevada shredded the Longhorns in the Big 12 and NCAA tournament, respectively.

That’s why the Harlem native is consistently compared to Rudy Gobert, but what sets Bamba apart from the lumbering Frenchman is that he seems to be a better fit for the modern NBA. He can move his feet defensively. He has the physical tools that should allow him to be able to hedge and switch ball-screens at the next level. He reportedly clocked in at a 3.04 3/4 court sprint, which would make him faster than Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Dwyane Wade. And while his three-point stroke was inconsistent during his freshman season at Texas — 14-for-51 (27.5%) — Bamba has spent the spring working out with Drew Hanlen, who helped the likes of Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum stretch out their range and fix their shooting stroke.

That’s a hell of a prospect, right?

So why isn’t he going No. 1?

There are questions about his strength and his toughness and his love for the game. Does he play because he’s addicted to the game, or is it simply because he was blessed with the physical gifts that will makes NBA teams salivate and invest millions and millions of dollars into him in the hopes that he pays dividends as the NBA’s preeminent defensive anchor?

That is the questions that NBA GMs have to get to the bottom of before they invest a top five pick in Bamba.

HEIGHT: 7-foot-0.75
WEIGHT: 236 pounds
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-10
2017-18 STATS: 12.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.6 BPG, 54.1/27.5/68.1, 14 3PM
DRAFT RANGE: 3-6

STRENGTHS

Everything starts with the defensive side of the ball for Bamba.

A shade over 7-feet tall with an NBA-record 7-foot-10 wingspan, Bamba has the potential to be one of the greatest shot-blockers to ever step into an NBA arena. At the college level, he averaged 3.6 blocks (4.9 per 40 minutes) with a block-rate of 13.2, but more importantly, he acted as the anchor of what was one of the best defenses in college basketball for the majority of the season. It’s not just his length, either. He has the kind of shot-blocking instincts — he anticipates plays, he can make up ground at the rim or on jump-shooters in a hurry, he uses his left hand to challenge shots — that will make him a force around the basket.

What makes Bamba so intriguing as a defensive piece is that he has the tools to one day potentially be a switchable defender on the perimeter. He can get in a stance and move his feet –something that should improve as he adds lower-body strength and quickness in an NBA strength and conditioning program — and while he’s never going to be Gary Payton or Tony Allen, his length will allow him enough of a cushion to contest jumpers and shots at the rim.

It will take some time, but Bamba has a real chance to one day be the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Defensively, so long as Bamba adds some strength and some weight, I think that, barring injury, it is going to be hard for him to fail.

Offensively, however, is a different story.

WEAKNESSES

The offensive side of the ball is where things get really interesting, or worrisome, with Bamba.

Let’s start with the shooting. As it stands, Bamba has never proven himself to be more than a guy who, in theory, could space the floor. As a freshman, he made just 14 threes (14-for-51, 27.5%) and shot just 68.1 percent from the free throw line. His shooting stroke was long and slow, bringing the ball behind his head and firing off jumpers with something that looked like a catapult motion. That shooting stroke has changed, however. Bamba has been working out with Drew Hanlen, an NBA skills trainer that counts the likes of Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal and Joel Embiid as his clients, and now his stroke looks compact and downright good:

Bamba stretching his stroke out beyond the three-point line, combined with the potential he has to be able to switch ball-screens, makes him a tremendously valuable player, but his issues on the offensive end of the floor weren’t just limited to his shooting touch.

Bamba lacks a degree of feel on that end. He’s not a great passer (15 assists vs. 46 turnovers) and he struggles to read where double-teams are coming from in the post. He doesn’t have the physical strength to be able to overpower stronger defenders on the block, and some of that rubs off on the way he boxes out. His length allows him to get rebounds at a point where no one else on the floor can dream of getting them, and while his rebounding numbers are quite impressive, he does have a bad habit of not boxing out and getting pushed out of position defensively.

That’s not the only place on the floor that his body-type gives cause for concern. Bamba is not a great screen-setter and tends to settle for picking-and-popping instead of rolling hard to the rim. Context is important here — Texas had shoddy guard play after they lost Andrew Jones and a total lack of spacing — but there are valid concerns about Bamba’s potential as a roll-finisher. He’s not the kind of athlete that is going to elevate through defenders, a la DeAndre Jordan, to finish.

Perhaps the biggest concern that NBA decision makers have about Bamba, and it’s one that has seemed to plague him since his high school days: He has an air of nonchalance when he plays, almost a casual nature that makes it easy to question his love for basketball. There are often times he floats on the perimeter, or he’ll jog back on defense and get pushed out of position on the block. He doesn’t always cut hard or roll hard. He makes simple mistakes in ball-screen defenses. He can beat his defender down the floor every time, but doesn’t unless he’s locked in.

Combine that with his lack of physicality, his overall lack of intensity is a real red flag for someone that is projected to be the defensive anchor of an NBA organization.

NBA COMPARISON

There really isn’t one, because there are very few players that have the kind of length that Bamba has and none of them are able to do what Bamba should be capable of doing if he reaches his ceiling. Rudy Gobert is the name that you hear the most often and that has just about everything to do with the measureables that those two players have in common and almost nothing to do with what they can actually do on a basketball court. Clint Capela is another name that pops up, but Bamba’s potential as a rim protector is higher and, unlike both of those player, Bamba has the ability to, in theory, make threes.

This is where the intrigue in Bamba lies. The players that change the NBA are the ones that do something we haven’t seen done before, whether that’s Steph Curry, or LeBron, or Kevin Durant, or Shaq. Bamba has a long, long way to go before he belongs anywhere near that conversation, but I can certainly see how someone can look at Bamba and see a world where he develops into that kind of a player.

That is no guarantee, however, especially when talking about a player where motor, effort and love of the game are where the concerns lie. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that Bamba might become Wilie Cauley-Stein 2.0.

OUTLOOK

This may sound simplistic but I truly believe it: Bamba is going to be as good as he decides he’s going to be.

The tools are there. Whether or not he puts in the work to capitalize on each and every one of those tools is something that Bamba will dictate, and the early returns are promising. Bamba has been working out twice-a-day with Hanlen in addition to doing weight-lifting, yoga and everything else that he can do to put his body in a position to be worth nine figures in salary over the years.

Will that last? Is this just his effort to get paid and to ensure his future? That’s another concern that NBA teams have voiced. In addition to being one of the best skills trainers, Hanlen also understands how social media works. He understands what is going to go viral and how to capitalize on that. He knows that sending videos of Bamba making nine NBA threes in a row with a newly-reformed shooting stroke will catch the eye of everyone, and he knows that his reputation as a coach will impact the way Bamba is viewed.

Bamba is also exceedingly smart. As we detailed in a story two summers ago, Bamba paid his own way to travel from New York to Boston for the Sloan Analytics Conference. He could have gone to Harvard, and probably could have gotten into the school with the help of the basketball program. He’s a very, very well-rounded person, and that will sometimes scare front office folks, even if it’s a silly concern to have.

I think there are enough concerns with Bamba that he won’t end up being one of the top four picks, but the potential is there to make each and every one of those four teams that passed on him regret it.

Sixth Man of the Year predictions: Sweet Lou Williams for three, or new blood?

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With the start of the NBA season just more than a week away — it’s predictions time. We’ll be covering most of the postseason awards between now and the opening tip of the NBA season.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks. Today…

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin Spencer Dinwiddie (Brooklyn Nets). It’s hard to go against the duo with the Los Angeles Clippers — Lou and Trezl rum the smoothest, sweetest pick-and-roll in the league — but this is the year Dinwiddie gets it done. He was absolutely in the mix for Sixth Man through the first half of last season, until he needed thumb surgery and came back not quite as efficient. Before the injury, he averaged 17.2 points per game, had a 59.8 true shooting percentage, and was a key part of the Nets push to the playoffs. He’s a tall guard at 6’6″ but has the quickness to blow by people and get to the rim, and he plays with a confidence that stands out on the Nets second unit. Dinwiddie will come off the bench behind Kyrie Iriving and when the drop off isn’t that steep people will notice.

Dan Feldman: Lou Williams (Los Angeles Clippers). Last year’s winner (both deserved and in actuality), Williams has name recognition for this award. He has won Sixth Man of the Year three times, tying a record with Jamal Crawford. With Kawhi Leonard‘s and Paul George‘s health issues and pedestrian playmaking relative to their other supreme skills, the Clippers might once again lean heavily on Williams’ scoring off the bench — especially in the regular season, when these awards are decided.

Dane Delgado: Lou Williams (Los Angeles Clippers). You wouldn’t be wrong if you thought that the addition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers would make it harder for Lou Williams to win a fourth Sixth Man of the Year award in 2019-20. The team in L.A will be much better, and so it might be harder for Williams to win the award based off of the performance of his superstar teammates. But the Clippers will need to use load management throughout the entirety of the regular season, and so smart NBA fans will take note of just how important Williams will be to a hopeful championship run for the Clippers this season. That could be the thing that puts Williams over the edge, and past Jamal Crawford for most 6MOY wins. If the Clippers are clearly reliant on Williams when both Leonard and George are resting, that will only boost his profile this season.

Rockets focused on basketball after fallout from Daryl Morey’s tweet

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HOUSTON (AP) The Rockets are back home in Houston, looking to leave behind the distractions from their trip to Asia.

Their two games in Japan were overshadowed by the aftermath of a tweet by general manager Daryl Morey in support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, angering fans and officials in China.

In their first practice since returning, the Rockets insisted they wouldn’t let the fallout distract them from preparing from the season.

“Guys can handle it,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We still got good work in. Everything’s fine, but you know what happened (is) regrettable, and it happened, but as I said, our work will get done.”

Veteran P.J. Tucker denied that dealing with this situation has been a distraction to this team trying to contend for its first title since winning back-to-back championships in 1994-95.

“Not really, honestly,” he said. “This time of season, everybody’s getting in shape, getting ready for the season, focusing in. So with all of the things that go on in life, and whatever, this is still our job, so we still come in and do our job every single day.”

The Rockets were in Hawaii on Oct. 4 to play a preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers on the first leg of a trip that included two games in Japan when Morey tweeted an image that said: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” His tweet was in reference to pro-democracy demonstrations in the semiautonomous Chinese territory that has been mired in escalating violence between protesters and law enforcement.

The tweet was deleted soon after it was posted, and Rockets owner and billionaire casino and restaurant owner Tilman Fertitta quickly rebuked his GM with a tweet saying that Morey does not speak for the team. He added: “Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”

Despite the swift response from Fertitta, the damage was already done. Former Rockets star Yao Ming took offense to Morey’s support for the anti-government protesters and as president of the Chinese Basketball Association, suspended its ties to the Rockets over the tweet.

Events in China promoting the Lakers-Nets series were canceled, NBA media partner Tencent said it was evaluating its plans to cover the league, and China state broadcaster CCTV did not air either preseason game.

The tweet also caused some Chinese corporations to suspend relationships with the NBA and it is unclear what can be done to mend the relationship.

D’Antoni was asked if there is anything the coaches and players can do to help repair things with China.

“We’ve just got to keep playing and keep trying to be good ambassadors for the game, that’s all the players can do,” he said. “And then we’ll let the NBA and the Houston Rockets sort things out.”

Morey hasn’t spoken publicly since the tweet, with his only comments on the issue coming in two more tweets on Oct. 6. In those tweets he did not apologize for his initial tweet but did say that his tweets “in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver backed Morey’s right to express his opinion and said: “We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression.”

Morey was at the Toyota Center on Sunday but did not speak to reporters and was not at the small portion of practice that media was permitted to attend. While Morey stayed out of the spotlight it was up to the players and D’Antoni to address how the Rockets can move past what happened.

James Harden understands that as the face of the team, people want him to be a spokesman for the Rockets in all issues, but right now he wants to keep his comments on basketball.

“We’ve just been focusing on us and getting better,” he said. “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. We focus on what we can control in this locker room … we had an unbelievable road trip, a great experience in those cities, and now we’re back and just trying to get better.”

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AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.

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More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tacko Fall reportedly earns two-way contract with Celtics

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Internet goobers can now rejoice, Tacko Fall will be joining Boston Celtics on a two-way contract this season.

The 7-foot-6 Fall, who played college ball at USF, has quickly become an internet darling based on his sheer size. His lanky frame and ability to shoot the 3-pointer hasn’t hurt Fall’s reputation as a fan favorite, either.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Fall will be signed to a two-way contract but is expected to spend most of his time in the NBA G-League.

Via Twitter:

Who knows if Fall will spend how much time with the Celtics this season. It’s not clear whether he’s actually ready for an NBA role just yet, particularly for a team in Boston that is looking to take over the Eastern Conference in the absence of Kawhi Leonard with the Toronto Raptors.

The Celtics are looking to make an NBA Finals run in 2020, and PFallaul will be an unlikely candidate to play a factor in that goal. Still, it’s a fun story and great to see a fan-favorite make it through and earn a contract.

Jayson Tatum doesn’t think Kobe Bryant taught him any bad habits

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There have been a lot of jokes about how Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum worked with Kobe Bryant two summers ago, and how that may have affected his performance in 2018-19. Tatum increased his shooting in segments between three and 16 feet by a combined 8% last season over his rookie year. Those midrange shots were largely attributed to Bryant’s influence by the social media sphere.

This regression went so far that Tim Bontemps recently wrote a story at ESPN about trying to de-Kobe-ify Tatum this year in Boston. But Tatum has heard those rumors, and he doesn’t believe that Bryant gave him any bad habits. To that end, Tatum said he’s still going to shoot the midrange jumper and he’s not putting Kobe at fault for his lack of progression last year.

Tatum’s comments were… well, just read them below.

Via MassLive:

“I’m still going to shoot the mid-range,” Tatum said after the Boston Celtics blowout of the Orlando Magic. “I seen all the people talking about the de-Kobe-ing. No, Kobe didn’t teach me anything bad. Everything we talked about and he showed me was great.”

“Last year, the jump that I didn’t make that everybody expected was not his fault,” Tatum said. “He’s one of the greatest ever. Everything he taught me was — I’m very grateful and it helped me. I gotta take responsibility for how I played last year and not being that big a jump that people thought. I’m still going to shoot mid-range.”

“I got better last year. Just not what people expected, not what I expected, and I take full responsibility,” Tatum said. “That’s why I’m excited for this year. But Kobe didn’t teach me any bad habits. I didn’t say that.”

Tatum’s problem wasn’t just his shot distribution, it was his shot selection. Not only did he shoot more buckets from three to 16 feet, but Tatum performed significantly worse from 16 feet out to the 3-point line, where he dipped by seven percentage points. He also saw a six percent drop in his 3-point shooting.

Combined with his shot distribution, Tatum’s percentages dropping in key areas made him a much less effective offensive player. Then again, if you watched any of the Celtics the last year — or paid attention to Boston pans online — you would know that they were fed up with some of the forced, Kobe-ish buckets Tatum would take at inopportune moments.

Even if Tatum ends up being a very good midrange shooter, that would cap his potential at DeMar DeRozan. That’s not what Danny Ainge and Boston are looking for, so perhaps someone can talk some sense into Tatum before it’s too late.

Leave it up to a former Laker to ruin the Celtics from within.