Mohamed Bamba’s lack of playing time adding to frustration of Orlando Magic’s losing season

Mohamed Bamba's work has largely been behind the scenes as he struggled to break the Orlando Magic's rotation. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Mohamed Bamba's work has largely been behind the scenes as he struggled to break the Orlando Magic's rotation. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

There were high hopes for Mohamed Bamba when he was taken sixth by the Orlando Magic back in 2018. His potential as an elite shot-blocker was there for all to see, registering the longest wingspan ever recorded at the NBA Draft Combine, while also demonstrating that there was much more to his game than his defense.

But now in his third year, the Magic are still not really sure what they have with Mohamed Bamba. The 22-year-old is also unsure of his role on the team due to a lack of playing time.

This is not entirely the team’s fault. Bamba played only 47 games in his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his leg and ended up missing the playoff series with the Toronto Raptors, hindering his development after a positive start to his career.

After making a return last season, he saw his minutes reduced slightly. But Bamba was solidly the backup center for the team. He showed better understanding and awareness defensively and his per-36 numbers were encouraging for a young center.

With the season cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bamba caught the virus himself which impacted his conditioning and prevented him from competing inside the bubble. So much so that he had to be sent home early from the Orlando bubble and again missed the postseason.

At the start of the new season, Mohamed Bamba declared he was completely healthy, though head coach Steve Clifford’s assessment differed somewhat. He told reporters in December that Bamba was “a ways away” and that there was “no timetable on his return.”

No matter how those terms were defined, Bamba was not able to participate fully in the team’s reduced training camp and was not fully available to play with the team to start the season.

The former Texas Longhorn center has not had luck on his side so far. He even had to miss a run of games this season after working his way back into getting some minutes because of COVID-19 protocols, adding to the frustration of the Magic’s injury woes.

Injuries have wreaked havoc on the Orlando Magic roster this season, but third-year center Mo Bamba is still being denied the opportunity to develop despite a lack of available players.

Now clear of the protocols and back with the team, there is still something holding the young big man back. Whether there are still fitness concerns, or if it is that Clifford does not trust him enough on a team that is trying (and failing) to win, his prime developmental years continue to go to waste.

The issue is multi-faceted, both having to do with his injury and recovery history and the depth the Magic now have at center where Nikola Vucevic is playing like an All-Star and Khem Birch is having a career season.

In a year with little practice time, there is not much chance for Bamba to prove himself.

Still, the impatience with a young, promising player like Bamba is growing. Even the national media has chimed in to Bamba’s lack of playing time and the thought that a team that is so focused on winning might not be the best place for a young center to grow.

For sure, Bamba is not getting the time to show fans or the coaching staff much of anything to reclaim his reserve spot.

Little opportunity

Mohamed Bamba has totaled only 47 minutes across eight games — and never more than 13, coming in the blowout loss to the Houston Rockets. He has played minutes in meaningful minutes just once this season, tallying 11 minutes in the loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Bamba has largely been used only at the very end of games that have already been decided.

Since returning to the team he has played two minutes against the Sacramento Kings, six minutes against the LA Clippers, three minutes against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday and then three minutes in Tuesday’s loss to the Raptors. Over the course of this season, he has played in just eight games and is averaging just 5.8 minutes per game.

On the rare occasion that he has played, he has looked good.

Against the Clippers, Bamba scored eight points in six minutes, followed by seven in three minutes against the Raptors. These are nothing minutes against lesser players, but nonetheless it is still promising to see him competing.

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  • For the season, Bamba is averaging 27.0 points per 36 minutes, 16.2 rebounds per 36 minutes and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes. It is not like Bamba has not been productive when he is on the floor.

    Before having to stay away from the team because of COVID protocols, there were signs his role was starting to grow. He played 13 minutes in the heavy defeat to the Houston Rockets when he scored 12 points, followed by eight points in 11 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Being careful with a player who has battled fitness issues is completely understandable. The Magic do not want to risk losing another player on an already depleted roster.

    But much of Bamba’s lack of time on the court and therefore development can also be attributed to the two centers currently in front of him in the rotation.

    "“As I explained to him, the reality is this: Our best position by far is the 5-spot,” Clifford said after Tuesday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors. “Vooch is playing at an All-Star level. Khem Birch is not just good, he is having a terrific year. It’s not even close our best position is the five.“What he has to do is work hard because there is going to be a sickness, a sprained ankle, foul trouble, whatever. That’s the way the NBA works. What I’m always going to do is you’re going to play the guys that give your team the best chance to win. Those two guys are two of our five or best six players right now. I’m not looking to make a change unless I have to at that position.”"

    Clearly, Nikola Vucevic should get the most minutes of any Magic player. He is playing at an All-Star level this season, running the team’s offense after an injury to Markelle Fultz and putting up big numbers almost every night.

    Bamba is not ready to be a starter over Vucevic. But his role on the team is also being lessened because of Khem Birch’s place on the roster.

    No one can fault Birch’s effort and desire. He hustles and gives it his all every night and has made enormous strides since joining the team in 2017.

    Clearly, the team is still in a position where it is trying to win games despite the severe lack of quality on the roster caused by the injuries. Clifford likes what Birch gives him and you can always bet on him to play hard, rebound and be effective around the rim.

    If the goal is to win, Birch might well be the better option because of his better understanding of defensive positioning.

    Focused on the future?

    But at 28, Khem Birch is not the future of this team. Mohamed Bamba, however, still could be.

    Like many other issues at present, it comes down to what the team’s aims are. Making the playoffs is going to be really difficult this year and it seems like the moment to move away from the existing core and towards the younger players on the roster is approaching.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    The Magic remain only 1.5 games out of the final spot in the play-in tournament and 2.5 games out of the eighth seed. Orlando certainly should feel that a quick win streak gets the team back into the hunt.

    But it is obvious these playoff dreams are beginning to slip away with how much the Magic are struggling. There is a point of pain the Magic will pass at some point — especially with the trade deadline looming on March 15.

    Everyone senses the team could be due for a quick reset facing the prospects of a lost season.

    If this is the direction the front office decides to go in, it will benefit Bamba enormously.

    The attention could be taken away from trying to win as many games as possible and instead switch to getting the center the time he needs on the court to develop and for the team to figure out what they have in him.

    Bamba has had to stay the course and stay ready. That is all he can do at this point.

    "“You have to do all the extra work and you have to do your part,” Evan Fournier said after Tuesday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors about Mohamed Bamba’s mentality. “He’s in a tough position. There are two really good centers in front of him. Mo has a really good attitude and I hope his spirit is not too bad right now. There are always opportunities. And his time is going to come.”"

    But even if the decision is made to plod on with the current crop of players, Bamba’s role has to increase. Time is catching up with the Magic and it will not be long before a decision will have to be made on whether to invest in the future of Bamba or let him walk.

    Orlando picked up the fourth-year team option on his rookie-scale contract. He will become a restricted free agent in the 2022 offseason. The Magic are going to have to commit to him or cut their losses soon.

    Getting to this point and still not having a proper idea of what Bamba is or can be would be a huge shame and an enormous waste. Particularly if he then goes on to have success with another team.

    Bamba sitting on the sidelines is only worsening the frustration of Magic fans caused by a losing team and a long injury list. Losing but committing to development would lessen this frustration.

    With Aaron Gordon now out injured for an expected four to six weeks, there is a real opportunity to work Bamba into a more important rotation role.

    Next. Orlando Magic breaking at the seams. dark

    Whether Clifford will or not is another matter.