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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.

New lottery rules change tanking incentives, starting this season

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To paraphrase Jerry Tarkanian, the NBA is so mad at the 76ers, it’ll keep the Hawks losing another couple years.

The NBA finally enacted lottery reform that will take effect this season. The measures appeared designed to curb Sam Hinkie’s ambitious multi-year tank, but Philadelphia has already reaped the rewards of The Process. The 76ers, led by former high draft picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are one of the league’s top teams and extremely unlikely to land in the lottery. It’s the next generation of losing teams, like Atlanta, that will feel the brunt of these changes.

Generally, the new rules reduce incentives to chase the league’s worst record. The very-bottom teams face greater variance and worse expected outcomes than previously. The top six seeds in the lottery became less valuable than before, the 7-14 seeds more valuable than before.

In the previous system, the three worst teams had 250, 199 and 156 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top-three picks were drawn then the next 11 picks were slotted in reverse order of record.

Now, the three worst teams each have 140 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top-four picks are drawn then the next 10 picks are slotted in reverse order of record.

There’s several ways to measure the changes, but here a a few based on lottery seed in the old system (orange) and new system (blue):

Odds of No. 1 pick:

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Odds of top-four pick:

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Expected pick:

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The “big” change is the bottom three teams all have the same odds of getting drawn, creating an illusion there’s no difference between finishing last or third-to-last. But the last-place team still gets slotted ahead of the second-worst and third-worst (and second-worst ahead of third-worst) if none get drawn in the lottery.

Simply, teams are still incentivized to chase the league’s very worst record. The incentives aren’t as strong as they once were, but they still exist.

And the upside remains just as high. Top draft picks are so valuable – a chance to add elite young talent on a relatively cheap contract that comes with five years of team control that, practically, extends much longer.

So, how will teams handle this changing structure?

Decisions will be fascinating among more than just the lowest of cellar-dwellers. Several teams have traded first-round picks this season that contain protections within the lottery. The Mavericks owe the Hawks a top-five protected first-rounder. The Cavaliers owe the Hawks a top-10-protected first-rounder. The Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight-protected first-rounder. The Nuggets owe the Nets a top-12-protected first-rounder. Those owing teams all face a new batch of decisions of when to give up on trying to make the playoffs and aim to keep that pick.

I mostly share the view that lottery reform won’t change much, particularly on a year-to-year basis. But the cumulative effect could be larger on some teams.

Hinkie’s 76ers were an anomaly. Few teams set out to tank for that long. Many more tanked for a season, knowing that would result in a high draft pick. With a new touted prospect in hand, those teams usually attempted to ascend.

But now, far less is guaranteed. Before, the second-worst team was likely to land a top-three pick and was guaranteed a top-five pick. Now, the second-worst team is likely to pick between No. 4 and No. 6. In that lower range, the team might get stuck with a lesser prospect who leaves it stuck losing again the following year.

At minimum, lottery reform adds uncertainty to a league that had grown familiar with the previous system and how teams proceeded within it. We can all guess how teams will act in the new system, but this season will provide much more tangible clarity.

Kyrie Irving says he hasn’t talked with Jimmy Butler about joining Knicks

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If you listen to some people, they believe that NBA stars are constantly scheming to end up together on certain teams, years in advance of their pending free agency. That was partially the case for the Miami Heat when Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh teamed up together. But we can’t always verify what players are talking about together, and of course they are free to have those conversations. NBA players have more agency than ever in 2018.

One rumor that has been floating around the NBA sphere as of late is the idea of disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler pairing up with current Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving on the New York Knicks next season. Butler has an option to get out of his current contract at the end of 2019, as does Irving.

Things are getting messy with Butler out in Minnesota, with the latest news being that owner Glen Taylor has decided to circumvent his front office team and offer Butler up for trade himself. Meanwhile, Irving still has not signed an extension with the Celtics, which has some fans in Boston nervous.

Of course, someone was going to have to give Irving the chance to respond to the rumors that he wants to team up with Butler, and Jackie MacMullan over at ESPN did just that in a recent feature with the Celtics star. For his part, Irving says that he has not spoken with Butler about teaming up or anything related to career decisions since 2016.

Via ESPN:

Irving said he’s aware that he’s been linked to Jimmy Butler in persistent free-agent rumors regarding a mutual desire to play together in New York, but he said he’s had no such discussions with Butler. In fact, he said, the last time he talked to Butler at length was when they were both playing with USA Basketball, and the two engaged in a spitballing session along with Durant and Cousins about what the future held for each of them.

“And that,” Irving laughed, “was in 2016.”

Players publicly denying things that could actually be true is nothing new. Readers can take Irving at his word, or continue to be suspicious. It’s your prerogative to decide, although admittedly there are few external factors that will help you confirm whether two players will actually end up on a team in this manner together.

Set aside whether actual planning has gone on: As we have seen with players like Paul George, the expanse of the NBA season can change sentiments for where players would like to play in the future. Nothing is set in stone, even if it feels that way.

At least one report has said that Butler’s interest in the Knicks has been overstated, and that he would like to win now rather than later. Certainly, adding him and Irving to the New York roster would help them move up a few rungs, but it’s unclear whether it would put the Knicks on top of major competition in the Eastern Conference.

For now, we have to sit tight and wait and see where Butler will end up. We likely won’t have to wait more than a few days.

Add Cavs, Blazers, Wizards, Bucks to list of teams calling about Jimmy Butler

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The Jimmy Butler saga in Minnesota has been difficult to track the past couple of days. No doubt that’s due to the irregular nature of the potential transaction, with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor circumventing his front office to seek a trade for Butler.

It was reported Saturday that several teams were interested in Butler, including some of the teams the star shooting guard reportedly prefers to land. That list included Brooklyn, Detroit, Houston, the LA Clippers, Miami and Philadelphia.

Now, you can add several more teams to the list who have at least placed phone calls to Minnesota now that they know Butler is available to be dealt.

According to multiple reports, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Washington Wizards are interested in seeing what they can do to add Butler to their roster.

Trading for Butler at this juncture is a tenuous balance for all parties. Butler can opt out of his current deal at the end of the season, and is expected to do as much. That means teams must be certain that Butler is going to re-sign with them, or be happy with his rental for whatever assets they decide to give up. It puts the Timberwolves in a tough situation as well, where they won’t to get fair exchange for Butler’s overall worth.

We don’t have many details on actual offers just yet. Things seem to be a bit hectic in Minneapolis and new information is still streaming in. Training camp for the Timberwolves starts on Tuesday, and reports say that they would like to have Butler out of town by then.

What teams are willing to give up is another factor, and that self-imposed timeframe could widen what Taylor sees as a good return for Butler.

For example, any deal for Butler with the Blazers would not include Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, or Jusuf Nurkic, according to NBC Sports Northwest’s Dwight Jaynes. That leaves some value for the Timberwolves, including Al-Farouq Aminu or perhaps Maurice Harkless. But if Portland is reportedly not willing to give up any of their most important core, you can expect other teams are heading to Taylor’s door with similar offers.

More teams being added to the potential list of Butler landing spots is not surprising. When a superstar becomes available, just about every general manager will at least place a courtesy call to the trading office. It doesn’t help that Taylor appears publicly to be in a position of little leverage, so no doubt rival general managers are licking their chops to try to snag Butler away for cheap.

Keep your eyes peeled. This one is going to happen quick.

Knicks reportedly near deal to waive, stretch Joakim Noah, making him free agent

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The Joakim Noah era with the Knicks is finally, mercifully coming to an end.

Back in the summer of 2016 — the summer when NBA GMs spent like a drunk sailor on shore leave — the Knicks’ Phil Jackson looked at Joakim Noah, who had played 29 games the season before due to injury and was showing the wear and tear of Tom Thibodeau miles on him, and thought “I should give him four years, $72.6 million because he will totally bounce back to Defensive Player of the Year form.” In the two year’s since Noah has played in 53 games total, and while he can still grab some boards when he gets on the court, he is not near the defensive force he once was, and he was never a great offensive player.

The Knicks are finally moving on and doing so in the next 48 hours, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at The Athletic.

Much like the Luol Deng move by the Lakers, this is about freeing up cap space for next summer for the Knicks. New York will pay his full $18.5 million salary for this season, then stretch his final season of $19.3 million over three seasons, which works out to about $6.43 million a season on the books. That is without any discount in the buyout Noah may give New York.

For the Knicks, that frees up about $12.9 million in extra cap space next summer, when they want to go big game hunting for free agents. (The Knicks reportedly have Kyrie Irving at the top of their list, although most sources I talk to around the league don’t expect Irving to leave Boston next summer.) It does mean the Knicks will have some of that Noah money on the books through the summer of 2023. The risk for New York is if they strike out in free agency then they still have that Noah money on the books, rather than just taking their medicine and paying the full price, although having him in the locker room and wanting minutes would be a distraction, one the Knicks would like to move past.

As for other teams having interest in Noah, maybe if he can prove he’s healthy some team might consider him for a backup center, or third center on the roster spot. Maybe. But most teams would rather have a young player they can get cheaply and develop in that spot rather than a 33-year-old veteran with an injury history. It’s something to watch, but I doubt the market is very deep. That said, it just takes one.