Orlando Magic 2019 Season Review: What Went Wrong — Mohamed Bamba’s rookie year

Mohamed Bamba arrived to the Orlando Magic with a ton of fanfare and defensive hopes. But he struggled predictably in his rookie year.

Mohamed Bamba made his presence known in his first NBA game. The Miami Heat barely knew what hit them.

He displayed his outside game some, was able to attack the basket on pick and rolls and flew in for blocked shots. His impact on that game was clear. Mohamed Bamba could be the do-everything center the Orlando Magic were waiting on. Someone who could play above the rim on offense and change the game defensively.

He finished his debut game 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in the three-point win. The Magic were +13 with him on the floor. Fans were upset coach Steve Clifford took Mohamed Bamba out of the game near the end, going back to Nikola Vucevic.

No one knew Nikola Vucevic would become an All-Star yet and Mohamed Bamba was the shiny new toy. His potential was far too much to pass up.

Coach Steve Clifford still preached patience, brushing off those talks of Mohamed Bamba’s seeming ascendance after one game. Bamba was tired toward the end of the game and could not possibly stay in the game to finish it off. There was still a steep learning curve for the young player.

That would play itself out throughout the course of the season.

The Magic knew Bamba needed time. He was far from a complete or NBA-ready player in many ways. He was slim physically — in his one start against the San Antonio Spurs, he got manhandled in a 39-point loss with just seven points — and struggled to handle a heavy minutes load.

Orlando tried its best to manage his minutes. And this all culminated with perhaps the worst thing that could happen — a leg fracture in late January that knocked him out for the rest of the year.

Bamba may not have been quite ready to play a full starter’s load or make that kind of impact, but it was still important for him to be out there. Whether he was playing well or not.

And that is something of the contradiction of Bamba’s rookie season.

The Magic played Bamba as a long-term play. But he did not help the team in the short term. He did not make an immediate defensive impact, despite some gaudy raw numbers.

There was plenty of reason to be encouraged with Bamba. He showed plenty of flashes. His up-and-down season was fully expected considering where he was in his development.

What was not expected was just how much better the Magic would be when he came out of the rotation. Sitting Khem Birch and letting Mohamed Bamba play was a necessary step to developing an important rookie. But it was also clearly a move that cost the Magic some wins and some games.

The Magic had their worst net rating this year with Bamba on the court at -15.2 points per 100 possessions. Orlando gave up 108.3 points per 100 possessions with Bamba on the floor.

When Khem Birch was on the floor, the Magic had a +2.8 net rating and a 102.0 defensive rating. Birch is a much more composed, disciplined and mature player. It is expected he would provide a bit more stability than the rookie would.

It also did not help that Bamba played in some pretty poor lineups early in the season. Clifford was still seeking the right rotation and running a 10-man rotation. He would trot out all-bench lineups and the team struggled to generate much offense. Maybe that was putting too much expectation on the rookie to be able to contribute.

It would have been interesting to see how Mohamed Bamba would have played alongside Aaron Gordon (414 minutes, -14.7 net rating together) and Evan Fournier (246 minutes, -15.6 net rating) in the bench lineup the Magic eventually settled on. The three-man lineup of Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier played together just 122 minutes together at a -23.4 net rating.

A lot of those had to come while the Magic were experimenting with a twin tower lineup of Bamba and Vucevic together on the floor. That unit. . . did not work — -37.5 net rating in 36 minutes.

Bamba was always a player sort of in transition.

He was transitioning into the league all while playing in lineups Clifford was still figuring out. And teams took advantage of him constantly.

Bamba’s raw numbers looked generally fine. He averaged 6.2 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game, adding 1.4 blocks per game for good measure. He shot just 48.1 percent overall and 30.0 percent from beyond the arc. He had to hang around the perimeter because he was physically not ready to do much in the low post.

Bamba had a high block number — 3.0 blocks per 36 minutes and a 7.0 percent block rate. He will be a good shot blocker in the league. But he was a rookie. He was still learning rotations and where to be on the floor. It was clear there was still a steep learning curve for him.

This is all necessary. The Magic might have been hurt in the short run with Bamba’s play this year. The numbers all suggest that the Magic were worse with Bamba on the floor.

It is no coincidence his injury was something of a turning point for the team. His exiting the rotation and Birch entering the rotation led to an almost immediate turnaround for the team. The Magic started their run when Bamba got hurt.

This is all bad and there is some disappointment with the overall production Bamba gave his rookie year, even if the inconsistency and issues he faced were very predictable and expected.

But this will all be good in the long run. Bamba got his taste of the league and saw how much work he has left to do.

The time off with injury gave him a chance to study the league a little bit more. The program Clifford and the coaching staff created for him to continue studying his opponents and the league as a whole kept him engaged. Clifford was complimentary of his approach.

Of course, no one will know whether that all works until he is healthy and back on the court. Both Steve Clifford and Jeff Weltman said Mohamed Bamba is progressing well from his injury. No one will commit to him playing in Summer League, but that seems to be on track.

Bamba obviously has a long road back and a lot of work to do. This part is not at all surprising. He was a raw prospect.

Undoubtedly, he did not make quite the immediate impact everyone thought. Orlando seemingly sacrificed some success for his growth. That is an OK tradeoff in the long run.

But for the short-term of this season, Bamba did not deliver for the team.