The messaging for Mohamed Bamba has been fairly simple from Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford.
Everyone knows the struggles he has gone through this year and the adversity he has had to overcome in his three-year career. Injuries have kept him from getting the full benefits of an offseason or build off his experiences.
The Magic knew the slender 7-foot big man would be a project when they drafted him. They knew they would need some patience to wait for him to put all those pieces together. They just had to see flashes to get him there.
Starting from behind this year because of his prolonged recovery from COVID-19 symptoms that persisted through the offseason, the Magic have had to keep things simple for Bamba. All the while, they had to fight for their spot in the Playoff picture. As that dream faded, Bamba was going to get his opportunity.
And so the message stayed very simple for the big man.
Clifford said before Friday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets that where Bamba needed to get to was to have the ability to run the floor on both ends consistently. He has to be able to beat his man to the paint both as a roller who puts pressure on the defense to account for his presence and as a defender who can help protect the rim.
This is something that seems simple — and feeds into the perception that he struggles with effort — but it is something that speaks more to attention to detail, focus and intensity rather than effort. If anything, this is where Bamba has to show growth still.
Mohamed Bamba’s responsibilities are simple as he gets the most consistent playing time of his career. He is thriving because he is growing in a key area for the Orlando Magic.
So where are the signs that Bamba is making progress? Look to an area that had previously been one of his biggest weaknesses — his rebounding.
The young center is quickly learning both this is a way to stay involved offensively and this is the way he can truly make an impact on the floor.
Bamba had another strong game everywhere outside of his scoring in Friday’s 122-112 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. For the third straight game, he grabbed at least 15 rebounds and posted a defensive rebound rate better than 25-percent. Those are things he had never done before in his careeer.
For a player who has struggled on the glass because of his size and strength, this is a sign that there is some renewed focus on attacking the glass and that this is not merely a product of his increased minutes upping his raw stats.
This looks like something Bamba has put his focus on and is succeeding in. This is a way he can always contribute and make good on some of the promise he had from the Draft.
"“It’s hard to play behind an All-Star for a couple of years and be in his shadow,” Cole Anthony said after Friday’s loss. “Since we made that trade, he’s had the chance to blossom out. His offensive game has flourished. He struggled a bit tonight, but he was on that backboard and blocking shots. The more he plays, the better he’s going to get and I’m happy to see him develop.”"
Bamba’s rebounding has been a big part of why he has not played in parts of his career so far.
He averaged 5.0 rebounds per game, 11.0 rebounds per 36 minutes in 2019 and a 21.3-percent defensive rebound rate. He posted 4.9 rebounds per game, 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes and a 21.6-percent defensive rebound rate in 2020.
Those numbers are not among the worst in the league for the center position. But considering how much stronger Nikola Vucevic (one of the best defensive rebounders by defensive rebound rate in the league) and Khem Birch were, it made it hard for Bamba to make this dent.
This season, Bamba is at 5.5 rebounds per game, 13.2 rebounds per 36 minutes and a 24.2-percent defensive rebound rate.
It is clear to see the progression in his numbers and it is not merely a function of his increased playing time. But that has not hurt either.
Before the trade deadline, Bamba averaged 3.9 rebounds per game, 13.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and had a 25.6-percent defensive rebound rate. After, he has hit 7.4 rebounds per game, 13.4 rebounds per 36 minutes with a team-best 23.4-percent defensive rebound rate.
What is clear from the numbers is that being thrust into more minutes has exposed some of his defensive weaknesses. Everyone can recall games against the Portland Trail Blazers where Enes Kanter blew past Mohamed Bamba for offensive rebounds and against the Los Angeles Lakers where Montrezl Harrell went on a third-quarter run beating Bamba on the glass.
Bamba still has to add strength to become a more consistent rebounder. He has always been good on the offensive glass, but his defensive rebounding has left a lot to be desired.
There are many reasons the team’s rebounding has slipped considerably since the trade deadline — losing Vucevic is a big part of it as is the relatively weak rotation the Magic have at power forward to support centers on the glass — but Bamba’s rebounding has at least been a part of that.
As he played more minutes now, this was an area he had to improve. And that is why the last three games especially have been so encouraging. It has built on some positive signs about his rebounding.
According to data from Basketball-Index, which is not yet updated to include this week’s rebounding binge — Bamba is near the top quarter of the league in defensive rebound success rate — his rate is 2.72-percentage points better than expected considering the teammates in his lineup and where he was collecting rebounds.
Bamba might rate well in several defensive rebounding metrics but one stands out as poor: his 25.7-percent contested defensive rebound rate has him barely in the top 50-percentile in the league.
That has jumped to 28.6-percent according to data from Second Spectrum on NBA.com. That is still a far cry from the numbers Nikola Vucevic, Wendell Carter and Khem Birch all posted this season. But it is a step in the right direction.
The eye test proves this out too. Bamba is attacking the glass a whole lot more and digging out rebounds in traffic. His presence on the defensive glass this year has been a real thing.
"“His rebounding right now is his major strength,” Clifford said after Friday’s loss. “He did it again tonight. He is rebounding on both ends of the floor. As he goes through this, I’m going to say the same thing, run both ways consistently so he can anchor the defense and go after rebound. Then develop a pick-and-roll game where you can roll, you can flare and you can short roll. Those are attainable things and he is rebounding really well.”"
There is still work to do. The Hornets scored 23 second-chance points on 11 offensive rebounds. As a team, rebounding still measures as a big weakness for the team. One Clifford is convinced they can correct without many schematic changes or work in practice. It will be a priority for the team in the offseason and training camp next year.
Bamba undoubtedly still has a long way to go to become a more consistent contributor. His defense Friday was encouraging with his ability to block shots and grab boards. But it is far from an every-play thing for him.
His offense is still a work in progress as his shot comes and goes. He is starting to crash the lane and roll on pick and rolls more. His offensive rebounding has gone a long way to adding to his scoring ability.
But this rebounding is an important next step for Bamba to carve out his place and certainly to get into a critical offseason of growth for the young center before he hits restricted free agency.