The first thing you notice at USA Basketball's junior minicamp is just how diversified the talent pool is. There are big kids and small kids; players who look 10 years older than they are and ones who look like actual children. There are lots of progressive teen haircuts and 7-footers in braces. But there is no one quite like Mohamed Bamba, and even in this crowd it's impossible to take your eyes off him.
The camp's final session on Sunday has split apart the seniors and underclassmen -- while the seniors run through offensive sets for April's Nike Hoops Summit, the underclassmen go at each other in three-on-three scrimmages. There's a small crowd tracking the latter group and they can't help but trade looks of astonishment as Bamba, a junior big man from Harlem, offers a glimpse into his incredible raw potential.
On one play, Bamba cuts off a driving lane from an opposing wing, steals the ball as he retreats, then pushes it down the other end before assisting on a layup. On another, he comes from behind the play to block a shot by pinning it with two hands against the glass.
Bamba, with a 7'8 wingspan hinged on a skinny 205-pound frame, is impressive just standing there, but there's nothing like seeing him in motion. When the opposition misses a three to lead to a run out, Bamba finally gets a chance to let loose. He sprints down the right side of the court in transition, points to the sky for a lob and hammers home a two-handed alley-oop.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown is sitting along the baseline in disbelief. I asked him if he's ever coached a player in his 17 years in the NBA who was as long as Bamba.
"Mutombo," he said with a laugh. "But he didn't have bounce like that."
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Bamba has lived in Harlem his entire life, but his family's roots are in Mali. His brother Sidiki Johnson was a top-100 recruit out of the class of 2011 who committed to Arizona as one of Sean Miller's first signings. He has another brother currently playing at an NAIA school. But while basketball now runs in the family, Bamba has separated himself with his nearly unprecedented combination of size and athleticism.
There simply are not human beings who are as big and as fast as Bamba. His 7'8 wingspan would be one of the biggest in NBA history. His 9'5 standing reach would be the second-biggest measurement of the last five years behind only Rudy Gobert, according to DraftExpress. He's also an articulate kid who was clearly enjoying the ride during his first experience with USA Basketball.
For as impressive as Bamba's measurables are, it's his athletic fluidity that makes him special. During one sequence, he dribbled the ball up the court for a transition slam, which elicited an enthusiastic response of, "Get it, Big Mo!" from several other campers. When he rebounded a missed layup by top 2016 point guard Troy Brown and effortlessly flushed it for a reverse dunk in one motion, the opposing big man looked on as if there was nothing they could do.
Bamba has skills, too. He has a nice shooting stroke with range out to the three-point line and no hesitation taking his shot. His lateral quickness is ideal for defending pick-and-rolls and he seems to have an intuitive sense of timing when it comes to shot blocking. Of course, having just about the longest arms in the world doesn't hurt there, either.
At this point, Bamba's biggest issue is adding muscle, but that's a natural hangup for a 17-year-old. He said he's lifting three-to-four times per week and claims to have already added 10 pounds since the start of this school year. He weighed in at 204 pounds at the USA Basketball camp after saying he registered at 194 pounds at a physical in August.
Best of all, he's recently found a passion for the game.
"It actually took me a while to love the game of basketball." Bamba said. "It used to feel like an obligation. Like I was tall, I had to love basketball. But it wasn't until the last year that I really embraced my love for basketball."
Bamba credits his newfound passion for the game with an increase in confidence that has coincided with a major rise to national notoriety. He's currently ranked as the No. 8 player in the class of 2017 by ESPN and No. 5 by Rivals and it's easy to see him going up from there. Given the gifts with which he was born, he might have as much long-term upside any player in high school basketball.
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Bamba plays with PSA Cardinals on Nike's EYBL circuit, the same program that produced another talented big man with African roots, Kansas five-star freshman Cheick Diallo. Bamba played U-16 this season because the Cardinals already had two talented big men in top-20 recruit Omari Spellman and Kassoum Yakwe, but he says competing in the younger division helped him learn to be dominant.
For Bamba, everything is happening so fast. He's been offered scholarships by Duke, Kentucky and just about every other power program this summer. He just became aware of his enormous wingspan in June.
"I didn't realize it until NBA Top 100 camp this year when they gave me 7'8," Bamba said, "I was thinking it would be like 7'4 or 7'3, and that's pretty good. But 7'8 was kind of ridiculous."
Bamba's recruitment is running through Terrance "Munch" Williams, the director of the PSA Cardinals. For a player who just started his junior year of high school, there's no timetable for a decision, but Williams and Bamba will start to take a closer look at schools this year.
"He's put himself in a position where he can go just about wherever he wants," said Williams, who traveled with Bamba to Colorado Springs for the camp. "If you can get his motor to one of the top two or three guys here, there's no one who can stop him."
Claiming a player can one day grow to be unstoppable sounds like hyperbole, but Bamba's physical traits make it easy for the mind to wonder. He essentially amounts to a raw sketch of basketball player right now, but the outline is damn enticing. You just can't teach a 7'8 wingspan or the ability to get off the floor as quickly as Bamba can. With a little time and a lot of patience, those daydreams might one day come to fruition.
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SB Nation presents: You have to see this dunk to believe it