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.
WEIGHT: 236 pounds
2017-18 STATS: 12.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.6 BPG, 54.1/27.5/68.1, 14 3PM
DRAFT RANGE: 3-6
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.
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.
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.
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.