Orlando Magic center Mohamed Bamba has faced consistent criticism throughout his collegiate and professional career. His poor play in his NBA career and how he struggled to reach the full potential that had him as the No. 4 recruit in the high school class of 2017 and the No. 6 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
He appears to play with no or low “motor.”
What “motor” means is still pretty difficult to pin down. It seems to refer to the energy a player plays with rather than effort — a key difference, but one that is not always so visible to the untrained eye.
Regardless of how anyone defines it, this is the central argument when it comes to Bamba. Everything the young center does eventually goes back to this problem or this perceived problem at least.
It is a problem talent evaluators saw from him in college. It is a problem scouts see in him today. It is a problem even Bamba acknowledges himself as he tries to carve out his place.
But the question always comes back to how does a player show more “motor” and exactly how does one improve it? Is it just something you know when you see it?
Mohamed Bamba faces a critical season for the Orlando Magic and his future. The questions he has to answer goes back to one of the central criticisms of his career.
This is the central question of Bamba’s career and probably the biggest thing that will determine whether he sticks with the Magic or even sticks with the NBA — it is likely someone gives him a second chance if the Magic opt not to re-sign him.
It all goes back to “motor.”
It is there in everything he does. From his draft profile from DraftExpress:
"“Motor really runs hot and cold. Looks disinterested at times. Walks around, doesn’t jog off the court when subbed out.”"
It was a criticism of him even when he made it to the NBA. The game always looked a bit too fast for him and he struggled to adjust.
Conditions beyond his control — the shinbone injury in his rookie year and then COVID issues that ended his second year and bled into his third year — have kept him from finding true comfort on an NBA floor.
As Josh Robbins of The Athletic detailed in his discussion with four anonymous scouts, their criticisms turn back to his “motor.” He does not play with energy or force.
If this is what “motor” is meant to be, there is something to that. Bamba has looked at times like the game is moving a bit too fast for him. He has struggled to get his bearings.
If it meant to play he does not play with enough force, the numbers would seemingly back that up. Mohamed Bamba was always drafted to be a 3-point shooting Rudy Gobert. He was a marvel for his physical length who could block shots — he averages 3.2 blocks per 36 minutes for his career.
There is no doubting his defensive impact as a shot-blocker just from his presence — in 2019, he had a 59.3-percent defended field goal percentage at the rim according to Second Spectrum; in 2020, he had a 51.4-percent defended field goal percentage at the rim; and in 2021, he had a 60.5-percent defended field goal percentage.
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But his overall impact defensively, even as hinted in those numbers above, was inconsistent. In 2019, the Magic had a 109.2 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor, the worst among rotation players (106.3 with Bamba off the floor). In his second year in 2020, the Magic had a 103.4 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor, the best mark among rotation players (109.7 with him off the floor).
Last year, the Magic had a 115.2 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor and a 112.6 defensive rating with Bamba off the floor.
If Bamba was drafted to make the Magic’s defense better, the results have been super inconsistent. The eye test would confirm this despite some strong moments.
That has always been the tantalizing thing about Bamba, he has moments of extreme brilliance. The talent is all still there.
Perhaps the setback after that 2020 season stands out then. It was a year where the Magic were really good defensively with Bamba on the floor, and Bamba was a force defensively at the rim. That was probably where Bamba looked and felt the most comfortable.
But the hiatus halted all that activity. While he did a good job during the pandemic shutdown putting on much-needed weight and strength, he became a COVID-long hauler. He was unable to play in the bubble and even into the beginning of the season struggled to stay on the floor.
One could easily say Bamba has stalled developmentally because of injury. Every chance he has gotten to improve — even dating to his injury that cut short his Summer League in 2019 — has seemingly hit a roadblock.
It is easy to see with winning the clear goal for the team why coach Steve Clifford did not fully trust the young center. Khem Birch was a lot more consistent through his time in Orlando.
The only time he has had true freedom was after the trade deadline this year. There, Bamba put up his best raw numbers — 11.1 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game, 1.6 blocks per game and a 46.9-percent field goal percentage. A lot of that came in garbage time though, it is hard to feel what is real.
The Magic had a 120.3 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor after the trade deadline (112.6 with him off the floor). But a lot of that is about the poor players the Magic had on the floor for the majority of their minutes late in the season.
Still, it does not speak to the force the Magic want Bamba to play with or the kind of energy the team needs from Bamba.
The only conclusion anyone can make from Bamba’s career to this point is that he is not an automatic improvement to the team’s defense. And that was essentially what he was drafted to do.
No one should question Bamba’s effort. He is playing hard. But he is not playing with force or with confidence. Bamba certainly has the length to make up for mistakes.
But in many ways, the NBA calls for young players to be decisive. It is almost better to be decisive and wrong than indecisive. The place a player does not want to be is in between making a decision. The best players victimize that indecision.
There are so many plays, a player can learn from mistakes. It is repeated mistakes that get players in trouble.
Watching Bamba, it sometimes feels like he is trying too hard to do the right thing, thinking too much and just not playing. Perhaps that is the biggest thing Bamba needs to unlock — simplify the game and let him do what he is most comfortable with.
Perhaps that is how he unlocks this motor problem. But this is all still so hard to define. And it undoubtedly comes down to Bamba and his confidence and focus on the floor.
Bamba is obviously under the gun a bit. He becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the season. At this point, it is not certain the Magic would re-sign him.
He needed a restart more than anyone and could be the player who takes advantage of Jamahl Mosley’s arrival more than any player. This is the refresh he needed to get a new pair of eyes on him and a chance to make a new impression.
But everything starts with his play on the court. Bamba has to prove himself on the court before anything else. More than anything, he needs to make his presence known. That will solve his motor question.