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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.

A half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Report: Kings trying to get involved in Jimmy Butler trade by taking bad contracts

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The Timberwolves are reportedly seeking, among other things, “salary-cap relief” in a Jimmy Butler trade. But Butler is on a de facto expiring contract, and Minnesota is already below the luxury-tax line this season. There isn’t significant relief to be gained by dealing just him.

So, that likely means unloading Gorgui Dieng, who’s due $48,687,640 over the next three years, including $15,170,787 this season.

That’s a toxic contract that will be difficult to move. Some potential Butler trade partners don’t have viable expiring contracts to trade for Dieng, and some potential Butler trade partners will flat refuse.

Enter the Kings.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In recent days, Sacramento has been aggressive in courting Minnesota and several of Butler’s trade suitors — offering to use its space as a landing spot for bloated contracts.

The Kings have about $11 million in cap space (not counting Jamel Artis‘ unguaranteed deal). They also have a few ill-fitting veterans on expiring contracts that could facilitate a trade: Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234) and Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500).

In return for taking bad contracts, Sacramento will seek draft picks and young players. This is the exact type of trade the rebuilding Kings should make. They just must hope Minnesota’s best offer involves them.

PBT Podcast: How do Victor Oladipo, Pacers take next step forward?

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Last season Victor Oladipo burst on the scene, making the leap from solid rotation player to All-NBA level star who could score and defend — and he dragged the Pacers up to being a solid playoff team with him.

The Pacers were the surprise of the NBA, which leads to the question: Can they do it again? More than that, how can they take a step forward? Kurt Helin of NBC Sports talks with J. Michael of the Indy Star about the Pacers and their key role players — Myles Turner, Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Thaddeus Young and more — and what has to happen to move this team into the top three or four of the East.

The pair also discusses the East a little, including whether Toronto is for real, and how big a threat will Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks be.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Report: Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau, owner Glen Taylor unaligned on Jimmy Butler trade

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly initially expressed no interest in granting Jimmy Butler‘s trade request. Then, owner Glen Taylor reportedly ordered Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden to deal the star. Yet, Thibodeau was still reportedly trying to convince Butler to stay in Minnesota as of yesterday.

Does that mean Thibodeau was defying his boss? Not necessarily. Thibodeau could be trying to persuade Butler on one front while Thibodeau and Layden also explore trades on another front. There’s room for simultaneous strategies.

But it doesn’t sound as if the Timberwolves are all on the same page.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden, who is the point man for trade conversations, continue to leave rival executives and owners unclear about both the specific players and broader kinds of assets that the Wolves value in a deal, sources said. Even more doubt exists about whether there’s even yet alignment between Taylor and Thibodeau on a structure and a timetable for a deal, league sources told ESPN.

From starting the week insisting to other teams that Minnesota wouldn’t trade Butler to slow-playing return phone calls and failing to share guidelines for the kind of deal that Minnesota wants to execute, Layden has graduated to the next phase of negotiations with teams: Asking for stars, starters, draft picks and salary-cap relief for the chance to acquire Butler, league sources said.

there’s a belief among interested teams that Thibodeau is reluctant to bring strong offers to his owner for examination because he’s still holding out hope to get Butler on the floor for Minnesota this season.

As the trade process grinds along, some interested teams are working to bypass Layden and go directly to Wolves ownership with trade offers. Teams dealing with Minnesota describe an unusual level of confusion. Some have heard separately from Taylor and the Layden/Thibodeau management team, with little apparent coordination between the two levels of Minnesota’s organization.

This all sounds believable. Thibodeau can be stubborn. He feuded with Bulls management until he got fired, and there’s a rumor he’d rather leave the Timberwolves than trade Butler for lesser young players and picks. There’d be a selfish logic to that approach, as missing the playoffs next season – more likely without Butler – could get Thibodeau fired, anyway.

But a dose of skepticism about this report: If you were a team trying to trade for Butler, would you rather deal with Thibodeau – a basketball expert who is adamant about getting a good return – or Taylor, a businessman who built his fortune outside basketball then bought an NBA team? The answer is probably Taylor, and a way to do that is sow discord in Minnesota with leaks like this. This report could cause Taylor to take over Butler-trade negotiations completely.