The center position is rapidly changing in the NBA, as back-to-the-basket bigs have been phased out over the last five or so years in favor of pure defensive hounds or freak do-it-all scorers.
Teams no longer want a sluggish, ball-demanding big in the post. Instead, every franchise is searching for their own Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, or Kristaps Porzingis to build a team around. That’s why the Orlando Magic put Texas freshman Mo Bamba at the top of the scouting list, selecting him No. 6 overall.
A seven-foot big who measured in with a 7’10 wingspan (the longest recorded length since 2000 at the combine, and 1.5 inches longer than Rudy Gobert), Bamba is an unmatched physical freak whose size should raise as many eyes at the next level. Few in the world are built like him, and he averaged 12.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks because of it.
He went No. 6 overall, but Bamba needed to be in the conversation for a top-3 pick because he has the potential to grow into a franchise’s defensive anchor, and there’s reason to believe in his potential to grow as a scorer.
Bamba was one of college basketball’s best defenders from the beginning
There’s no secret it’s Bamba who anchored Texas basketball as the No. 12 defensive team in the nation, according to KenPom. The Longhorns allowed an incredibly low 89.6 points per 100 possessions with Bamba on the floor, because his ridiculous length alters the shot of anyone within his 7’10 reach. He’s one of the few prospects in the world who can sell tickets just by his play on the defensive end.
Bamba’s best game came against Kansas, one of the nation’s best teams, in January. He posted 22 points, 15 rebounds, and eight blocks to put his team within range of beating the Jayhawks. Matched up against a sophomore former five-star recruit, Udoka Azuibuike, Bamba was at ease protecting the basket and running the floor.
But Bamba doesn’t just force shot adjustments and swat away on the interior. He’s a threat from anywhere inside to the three-point extended. He reads the floor incredibly well for someone who has only played a handful of college games, and is an expert at hedging out to stop the ball.
His length here stopped 43 percent three-point shooter LaGerald Vick from firing in rhythm, and that’s just a small sample of the plays he makes that don’t show on the stat sheet.
Bamba’s defensive IQ is off the walls, specifically at reading the pick and roll. He knows how to use his size to disrupt the ball-handler, and he’s quick (and long) enough to recover onto his own man as he rolls toward the hoop.
It’s hard to argue against Bamba as the best rim-protecting big in college hoops last season.
Bamba’s block rate was sensational as well at 13.2 percent — the fifth-best rate in the country last season — which translated to an unreal SEVEN per 100 possessions. He blocked four or more shots in 20 of the 30 games he played in at Texas.
OK he’s a defensive stalwart, but can he score?
Bamba is far from a finished product on the offensive end, but he does the basics well for now. He isn’t a guy you can feed the ball to in the post and watch him work, or a guy who penetrates from the wing, and he definitely isn’t going to pull up with a defender at his hip. And that’s all OK.
He’s a good finisher off lobs and lead passes for easy layups, and that’s what he’ll do as a rookie in the NBA.
His best offensive attribute may be that his offensive rebounding, grabbing 3.2 of his 10.5 per game on that end. He O-rebounded to the 84th-best percentage among 2,159 players, per KenPom.
That 7’10 reach is still going to be a problem at the next level.
The area of his game that could separate him from the rest of the top prospects is his development at three-point line. Bamba only took 51 this season (1.4 per game) and made 14 (27.5 percent), but his form is pure. This stroke looks the part of something an NBA team could develop.
His elbow cocks out a bit, and his release is slow, but his motion is smooth, as is the movement of the ball from his stomach up to his chin. His form looks a bit better in videos he’s published ahead of the combine.
Mo Bamba made 14 threes on the season, seems to have soft touch and might have more potential as a shooter than he demonstrated in college with @TexasMBB. He has good hands + will be able to space the floor vertically— DraftExpressContent (@DXContent) May 17, 2018
Here he is working with @DrewHanlen leading up to the combine pic.twitter.com/w319GiG0EU
Naysayers will point out that free throw shooting is the top indicator for NBA three-point success, and he shot just 68 percent from the free throw line. But that’s not awful, and he improved as the season progressed.
We haven’t seen enough of Bamba as a floor spacer to know his true upside on the offensive end, and the idea he could grow into a real scorer is enticing.
So why did the Magic make a smart decision?
Bamba is a special talent whose size is replicated by few — only Gobert and Hassan Whiteside come to mind. Neither of those two have the shot mechanics of Bamba, and aren’t pace-and-space options or as quick down the court as the Longhorn, either.
Defense translates to the NBA, and Bamba is among the best in the country at it. He blocks shots at a ridiculous rate, and has shown the smarts to be in the perfect place to disrupt as many shots as possible. He may be a longer-term project, but he has potential to grow into a two-way player.
Mo Bamba should have been a top-five pick. The Magic were lucky he wasn’t.