Mohamed Bamba is progressing nicely for Orlando Magic, still getting held back

Mohamed Bamba has made progress as he has fit well into his role off the bench for the Orlando Magic. The thing holding him back is the desire to see more.

The Orlando Magic are a team full of seeming contradictions. This is a team fighting for the playoffs but still a team trying to grow players. The team acts like the present matters (and it does) but is still more focused on a long-term vision and future.

The Magic’s best players are still incredibly young. Aaron Gordon, everyone has to remind themselves, is still just 24 years old. Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba and Markelle Fultz are each just 21. Even the veteran players are still south of 30 — Nikola Vucevic just turned 30 this year.

The Magic have made it abundantly clear they value the playoffs as a mechanism for growth. They believe the best environment for young players to grow.

That is at least part of the frustration for this season. Despite the playoff experience and despite another year for several young players to grow, the Magic find themselves right back where they were last year — the same record even. Orlando is at least in pole position for a playoff spot, this time around.

To be sure, this is where no one wants to be. Stagnation is an enemy of progress in many ways.

But a bright spot for the team has been seeing some key young players take steps forward and play bigger roles.

Before his injury, Jonathan Isaac was on track to make the All-Defensive Team and was a force on the glass. Markelle Fultz emerged from his injury in the early part of his career to be a reliable starter, showing flashes of his first-overall-pick talent.

It is easy to forget about Mohamed Bamba in this process.

He has had to play understudy to the team’s best player in Nikola Vucevic, leaving him precious few minutes to get on the floor. When there, Bamba’s lack of size and strength are apparent, as they would be for most young centers.

But Bamba has still made his mark. And in his second season, Bamba has progressively gotten better and more dependable. His impact is measurable and he is succeeding in this bench role.

It has been a difficult balance to weight developing a promising young player like Bamba and trying to win. The Magic certainly are not giving up — coach Steve Clifford scoffed at the thought the Magic had traded Bamba when he sat him for the second half against the Boston Celtics, citing instead Bamba’s struggles to keep up with a more mobile Celtics lineup.

That one incident aside, Bamba has started to show a lot more confidence and comfort on the floor. He has started to make good on the potential that made him the sixth overall pick. There may still be work to do, but Bamba has become a valuable and consistent rotation player for the Magic.

He is averaging a meager 5.5 points per game (down from last year) and shooting a 53.0 percent effective field goal percentage. He is grabbing 5.0 rebounds per game and blocking 1.4 shots per game (all the same from last year).

His struggles to shoot early in the season definitely played a role in some of this statistical regression. But recently Bamba has started to step up his play.

In his last 10 games, Bamba is averaging 6.0 points per game, but shooting 59.0 percent from the floor, including 50.0 percent from three. He is grabbing 3.5 rebounds per game and blocking 1.7 shots per game.

Per 36 minutes in his last 10 games, Bamba is posting 16.3 points per 36 minutes, 9.5 rebounds per 36 minutes and an astounding 4.6 blocks per 36 minutes. Bamba ranks 19th in the league in blocks per game overall and has the third-highest block rate of any player who plays at least 10 minutes per game.

Opponents shoot 50.0 percent at the rim against Bamba, according to Second Spectrum. That is better than Isaac’s 51.4 percent at the rim on the same number of attempts against him. Bamba being a center means he should be facing a lot more of these shots.

Bamba may not be racking up points and he may be an inconsistent presence on the glass. But he is learning how to use his length better and making a bigger impact on the floor.

The team has a 101.4 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor, the best mark of any regular rotation player this year. In the last 10 games, that number has dropped to 110.9, but that is still nearly three points per 100 possessions better than the team’s average in that time.

Bamba is not responsible for all these numbers. But it certainly suggests that within the role the Magic have carved out for him, he is making a clear defensive impact. With his offense starting to round into shape, Bamba is starting to look like a more complete player.

For those looking for tangible signs of progress from Bamba, they are all still there.

But it also still feels like the team is holding him back in some ways. Bamba is growing more consistent and comfortable in his role — with still some young player mistakes. But he is ultimately in a lot of lineups that lack much scoring punch.

Mohamed Bamba has most frequently played with bench players like Terrence Ross, D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams. At some point, the Magic have to try to find him minutes with the key players on the roster.

Mohamed Bamba has played just 323 minutes with Aaron Gordon (+1.4 net rating, 103.0 defensive rating) and 84 minutes with Markelle Fultz (-2.2 net rating, 92.1 defensive rating). Mohamed Bamba has played more minutes with Gary Clark than he has with Markelle Fultz.

There just has not been enough time to see how Bamba would work with the team’s point guard in Fultz. Those 84 minutes come across 32 games (2.6 minutes per game). That is hardly enough of a sample to see how those two players compete together.

It was a rare sight Monday when Gordon, Bamba and Fultz all shared the floor together — just 17 minutes across 17 games. The numbers are not exactly great in those short minutes, but it also has not gotten a chance to work.

The Magic have slow-played Bamba’s growth for sure. They are being careful to put him in situations where he can succeed to build his confidence and create good habits reinforced with success.

He is progressing on that front. But there is a point where the Magic need to put some trust back into Bamba and see how far out he can swim.

Playing in lineups without the team’s best players is hiding at least what his full potential could be.

It is hard to step in and run experiments with the team needing to win games. The Magic are not about to do something completely unknown to them unless they have to.

The only thing anyone can conclude is Bamba is making progress, even if it is baby steps. He is making a positive impact and growing defensively.

Next: Orlando Magic still struggle to measure up to last year

And everyone wants to see him do more. That is the part everyone will have to wait for.

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