Mohamed Bamba is yet to make his season debut as he struggles to get back onto the court. Cracking the Orlando Magic rotation is no guarantee for him.
The Orlando Magic have gotten off to an impressive 4-1 start to the season, including the first 4-0 start in franchise history. But the biggest frustration among Magic fans is the question of Mohamed Bamba.
Mohamed Bamba has been on the active roster and in uniform for the last few outings — including the Magic’s recent road trip — but he has not yet found his way onto the court. Coach Steve Clifford has cited the team’s inability to get practice time to fully integrate Mohamed Bamba back into the playing group.
Clifford is very methodical when it comes to bringing players back. He usually likes to see them back in practice and able to take hits and absorb contact before putting them out in games.
There are still some opportunities to play Bamba. But even those have not come forward for the third-year player. Clifford said Thursday’s 116-92 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was a perfect chance to play Bamba and for him to make his season debut, but the center hit his head in a 2-on-2 game before tip-off and was unavailable because he was still feeling the effects of the hit.
He will still have to play those games before tip-off with the team having precious little time to get a practice in with the condensed schedule — the Magic were originally scheduled to practice Friday, but that was canceled and the team will not have consecutive days off until February.
The Magic are still waiting to see if they can get the former sixth overall pick out on the floor. Bamba, after waiting to rebuild his conditioning following a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in June.
Even when he is ready to play, the Magic will face a difficult choice.
The fact is that Mohamed Bamba is going to have to outplay Khem Birch in practice before he even has a chance to touch the floor. And even then, Khem Birch’s solid play to start the season may make it harder for the young player to crack the rotation immediately.
Bamba is not being gifted a role on this team despite his draft status.
Birch has improved his offensive game to the point where he is playable on offense and is still a good defender. Birch is averaging a career-high 6.6 points per game and 4.6 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game.
When Birch is on the floor, the Magic have a +17.0 net rating, the best mark of any regular rotation player on the team at this early stage of the season. Probably even more astounding considering how the Magic got blown out in Thursday’s game.
The Magic have an 88.7 defensive rating with Birch on the floor as part of that strong second unit that has buoyed the Magic to several wins.
Birch was also part of the unit that made the 17-point comeback against the Washington Wizards. Birch has earned his spot in the rotation, and with the Magic getting off to a fast start with a 4-1 record, Clifford has little to no reason to change the rotation.
Further, Birch is considered one of the best screeners in the league. That skill is a point of pride for Birch.
He leads the league with 11.7 screen assists per 36 minutes. He and Rudy Gobert are the only two players averaging more than 10.0 screen assists per 36 minutes this season. Last year, Birch ranked in the 95th percentile in the league in screen assists per 75 possessions, according to stats from Basketball Index.
With that being said, Bamba still needs to prove he is part of the Magic’s future. While most people will not see it, Bamba needs to start proving it in practice first to earn his time on the floor.
Bamba’s stats were flat last year. But he still made important strides on the floor. Like Birch, he was statistically a strong screener — Bamba averaged 6.4 screen assists per 75 possessions, a mark a whole 0.5 assists per 75 possessions better than Birch. And his ability to stretch the floor as a 3-point shooter makes him a more potent offensive player.
Additionally, Bamba was one of the best shot blockers in the league last year, posting 3.6 blocks per 75 possessions, the best mark in the league. Opponents shot 14.6 percentage points worse at the rim with Bamba defending, according to Basketball-Index.
King James Gospel
A lot of this was with Bamba still grasping and improving as a defender. He had undoubtedly earned his time last year over Birch after Birch’s strong finish to the 2019 season after Bamba’s leg injury ended his season just as the team made its playoff run.
Bamba is not on the injury report and is cleared for contact. But there is still no timetable for his full return. It may be merely in case of emergency or in blowouts at this point, as Clifford seemed to hint after Thursday’s game.
Instead, he has to show he is in rhythm and able to play organized basketball.
That means Bamba has to outplay Birch in practice before he returns to the rotation. If Bamba is going to prove he is the future center of this team, then he is going to have to beat out Birch to earn the backup center spot.
That will be made tough because Birch has played very well. It will also be tough because there is no time to practice. Not fully enough to gain the coach’s confidence.
Playing games at home this week — the team has three games remaining on its homestand beginning Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder and finishing Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers — will give Bamba the chance to play extra 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 games inside the AdventHealth Practice Facility.
On the road, the Magic are typically doing shootarounds and walkthroughs at their hotel without gym access to get shots up before a game.
If and when Bamba gets back into the rotation, then the bench unit is going to have a higher ceiling and should be better in the long and short term. Bamba has proven he can shoot the ball as he shot 34.6-percent from beyond the arc last season and is a capable shot blocker.
But, in the end, this is going to happen if Bamba can earn his spot in the rotation.
This season is going to answer questions about this roster and whether or not Bamba can be a part of this team’s future is one of them.
The first step in proving that he belongs is beating out Birch for the backup center spot. It is time for Bamba to show that he belongs and deserves minutes on this team.