Orlando Magic’s long-term future takes a hit losing Mohamed Bamba

Mohamed Bamba has not been able to get off the bench for the Orlando Magic. A big reason are lingering effects from a positive coronavirus test. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Mohamed Bamba has not been able to get off the bench for the Orlando Magic. A big reason are lingering effects from a positive coronavirus test. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

Mohamed Bamba has left the bubble as he continues to deal with remnants of COVID-19, costing him another postseason and hurting the Orlando Magic’s future.

D.J. Augustin was sitting in front of the camera broadcasting his media availability across ZOOM after the Orlando Magic defeated the New Orleans Pelicans. He was talking about the game that finished off the seeding round and the challenge ahead in the NBA Playoffs.

That is when Mohamed Bamba peaked his head across the camera, playfully smiling as his veteran point guard dutifully answered questions. It is in this moment you remember Mohamed Bamba is still so young — 22 years old — and still as playful as ever.

The smile is a brave face to show he is still trying to be involved with his team. He is trying to contribute in some way to his teammates and help them however he can. Even if it is lightening the mood.

Just look at him celebrating on the sideline during Thursday’s game:

Bamba’s teammates gave him the same respect and encouragement as he played so well in the team’s scrimmages. Even in limited minutes, his presence and his newfound weight were making a clear impact. Everyone felt like the pieces were coming together.

They all seemed excited.

That excitement, like so much of the things the Magic have faced during the seeding round and since the season resumed, quickly became muted.

Now he has left the NBA campus. His season is over.

The Magic announced Bamba would leave for a “comprehensive post-Coronavirus evaluation.” It raises concerns that Bamba, while free of the virus and testing negative, is still feeling the effects of the potentially fatal disease.

The Magic once again have put their future ahead of their present, taking care of the person first and foremost and protecting a key player to their future.

Bamba revealed he tested positive for COVID-19 in June and faced serious symptoms — including losing his sense of taste and smell. He had to let his body recover from the serious disease all the while falling behind again on the court.

And like that, the second of the Magic’s key young players — and all three of the draft picks Jeff Weltman has made — is out for the team’s second playoff appearance. Jonathan Isaac is out likely for the entire 2021 season too with a torn ACL. And 2019 Draft pick Chuma Okeke deferred his rookie year to recover from his own torn ACL.

That is a lot of the Magic’s future sitting not even on the bench but completely away from the team as they recover from injuries.

Missing the postseason

Health is always the Orlando Magic’s primary concern. Orlando under Jeff Weltman has always taken a cautious approach to helping players recover. They understand the team’s long-term future can only be helped if their players are healthy and able to play for long stretches.

But there is undeniable time lost when players are injured for key moments in their development. Ultimately the Magic do not get the most of their prospects without playing them.

So in the least of his concerns, Mohamed Bamba will be injured for a second straight year. The hope of exposing Bamba to playoff basketball and the grind of winning has slipped away from the team’s development plan.

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Orlando hoped it could use winning as a means to help young players grow. For a player like Bamba, whom the Magic knew they were drafting as a raw prospect who would need time to acclimate to the league, this time would be invaluable.

Bamba fractured a bone in his leg during his rookie season, missing the entire 22-9 run to the playoffs. The Magic coaching staff kept him engaged with study of the league and the team’s gameplans. But that does not replace actually playing under playoff and winning pressure.

As Bamba added strength, that experience would be the most valuable development tool.

Even so, Bamba had a better and growing season.

He averaged 5.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, all numbers that were even with or slightly down from his rookie year. His 3.6 blocks per 75 possessions was one of the best marks in the league and he was proving a strong rim protector very quickly, even as teams did their best to test him constantly at the rim.

Bamba still had defensive positioning to learn and strength to gain — especially to play better on the glass — but he was making a clear defensive impact. He was playing in a way that the Magic had envisioned.

He just needed to continue developing his body and becoming a more confident offensive player. All that was starting to come together.

But the “bust” label is getting thrown around with the former sixth overall pick. Through no fault of his own, injuries have held him back and kept him from making serious and consistent gains to make his mark on the rotation.

Made the gains, none of the rewards

During the hiatus, Mohamed Bamba put on 20 pounds of muscle and looked like he was ready to make an impact. He essentially did half of his offseason work.

The hiatus meant he was unable to get in the gym and keep his basketball skill work up to match his new physical frame. Then the virus hit just as the gym was opening up. Bamba fell further behind.

Bamba played no more than six or seven minutes in each of the scrimmages. And while he looked capable and active. It was clear he was winded and struggling to produce. With the playoffs coming up, the Magic did not have the time to let him make mistakes or play him in short bursts.

Without progress, it would be tough for Bamba to regain his spot.

There was little time to play him. And the Magic were clearly staying very cautious.

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Bamba said he was frustrated but understand the Magic’s thinking. Steve Clifford would only say that his issue was conditioning. Unable to reveal Bamba’s COVID diagnosis because of privacy policies within the league, the media could only surmise it was because of his weight gain.

Clearly everything has worked against Bamba in his career. His journey has not been a straight path. And the Magic have frustratingly had to go along, keeping their patience along the way.

Things have not gone to plan for the Magic.

Happy to be back, but not getting all out of it

They are certainly happy to be in the playoffs again. It is where they want this team to be. But part of taking the next step was getting Isaac and Bamba, especially into the postseason.

Instead, all they really have is Markelle Fultz and Aaron Gordon as players younger than 25 years old playing in the postseason.

As a young team, the Magic are ahead of schedule with a playoff culture and a record of winning that young players can grow and develop in. As a veteran team, this is a group struggling to take its next steps and grow. They have reached their ceiling.

To be sure, Isaac and Bamba figure centrally to what the Magic will look like down the road. And they are important for the team breaking through in the years to come.

Again, the future has been put on hold. Bamba clearly could not gain much from being inside the campus. He was not progressing or gaining conditioning enough to play. The Magic did not feel comfortable throwing him back out there.

It is not fair to speculate as to why. The only hope anyone can have is that he remains healthy and symptom-free and that nothing more serious is going on.

The Magic’s long-term hopes and development have rightfully taken a back seat to this.

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Otherwise, this feels like a wasted season because of these key injuries and these opportunities lost. Time that has been lost due to circumstances beyond their control.