Mohamed Bamba had an opportunity this summer that he has not had before: A healthy offseason to improve.
It is sometimes a small thing to think about how far a healthy period between seasons can go for a young player’s development. But it is vital.
It is that player’s chance to get in the gym and do the work their team and they need to improve. It is free from the pressure of games and the responsibilities of a team. It is a period of intense focus.
Once the season begins, time on the court can be short. With the never-ending rush of games that is inevitable with an 82-game season, teams cut practices short and try to limit contact to preserve bodies for the grinding marathon to come.
Training camp is truly the only period where a team can let loose and evaluate their roster in full before games start to take primacy.
Coaches can certainly set opinions and never budge off them once the season begins. Their focus can shift away from individual development and more toward the managing of the season.
That is ultimately how Bamba got buried on the bench.
He struggled as young players do, but then he got hurt. And it was hard for him to reshape the narrative or prove himself. With practice time, he could never get into Steve Clifford’s good graces and his game production when he did play was not making an impression.
Mohamed Bamba has struggled to find his place with the Orlando Magic as he navigated injuries and changed expectations. A healthy offseason and a new coach have him set to make an impact.
No player needed a healthy offseason to make those improvements and take advantage of the Orlando Magic’s sudden change more than Bamba.
He got a full reset in many ways.
He started coming into his own after the trade of Nikola Vucevic and playing time became ample and plentiful. And a new coach seemed to want to work specifically with him and was eager to get on the court and give him guidance.
Video of Jamahl Mosley on the court with Mohamed Bamba the day after Mosley was hired was something that excited Magic fans but spoke to the hands-on development work Mosley and his coaching staff were intending to do.
With Bamba set to come off his rookie contract after this season and likely enter restricted free agency, a lot is on the line. Bamba knew he had to work to improve his weaknesses and make his presence felt once he stepped on the court.
"“This summer I prided myself on a couple of things,” Bamba said during media day. “I wanted to work on my conditioning, I wanted to work on my finishing around the rim. I think one of the things that just comes along with time in the NBA and just playing is my IQ. To see plays happen before they happen and make reads. I think that is one thing I’m really excited to get out there and show this year.”"
Those are all things plenty of Bamba’s critics have pointed to in his young career. He has struggled to overcome them, only falling further behind because of injuries that have slowed down any chance to improve.
Bamba last year averaged 8.0 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game. After the trade deadline, he averaged 11.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in 20.8 minutes per game.
More playing time and opportunity certainly increased his production as anyone would expect. But like so much about the end of the Magic’s 2021 season, nobody is sure what to believe considering the lineups the Magic had to throw out to finish the season and the injuries the team constantly faced.
Everyone on the Magic’s roster has something to prove.
But Bamba has a lot more to prove in this pressure-packed season. He had never had that healthy offseason to get better. He has learned and improved from playing, for sure, but his skills and practice are still stuck seemingly in his rookie year in a lot of ways.
Bamba suffered a fracture in his leg his rookie year that knocked him out during the team’s playoff run in 2019. He recovered enough to play in Summer League, but he was still obviously slowed until an ankle issue shut him down. He needed time to get over that, taking away valuable time between his rookie and second season.
Bamba eased back into the lineup at the start of the year but firmly established himself as the backup when the season went on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the team returned from COVID, Bamba clearly made some needed weight gains and looked to have some understanding of how to use that muscle.
But he also had COVID during the break and became something of a long hauler. He struggled to keep his conditioning up and ended up not playing any significant minutes during the bubble. He struggled to keep his conditioning or make gains there and fell out of the rotation before the trade deadline last year.
All this has worked to slow Bamba’s development. And so this offseason gave him the chance to get in the gym and work.
"“People would often mention he hasn’t had a full offseason yet and I never really saw the significance of it,” Bamba said during media day. “I just thought in the offseason you work on your body regardless. But you can set aside trying to get back and trying to gain different aspects into your game and your body, your focus is different. It was a big help for me.”"
That should preview something of a big season for Bamba. He certainly hopes so with his contract coming up. And Wendell Carter at media day hinted at the Magic asking him to expand his range and improve his lateral quickness to possibly play some power forward. The Magic are going to lean into their versatility a lot more.
But that also opens up the importance of Bamba this season. And new coach Jamahl Mosley has taken a special interest in him.
That video from when Mosley first arrived was not an isolated incident. Bamba joined the Magic in Las Vegas for practices before Summer League began. Bamba told Julia Poe of the Orlando Sentinel that he continued to review film and work on the court with Mosley and the team’s new coaching staff.
There is certainly extra attention on him understanding his potential defensive impact. That projection from draft night never went away for Bamba.
Mosley wants Bamba to fit in with his overall vision for the team and its defense.
"“I want him to be the loudest guy in the gym when it comes to coverages and anchoring the defense in a lot of ways,” Mosley said after Tuesday’s first practice. “His ability to have a high basketball IQ and see what’s coming before it happens with a lot of offenses. That’s going to be great for him.”"
Bamba will still have his work cut out for him, for sure. There is a lot of pressure to perform and deliver this year. And the Magic are pushing him outside of his comfort zone a bit.
Bamba seems willing to go there, knowing he has to do these things to be successful in the league and be what this team needs from him. And he has finally had an offseason to put it all to work and improve.
For the first time in a while, there is eagerness it seems to see where Bamba is and what he can do. So much has been refreshed about the Magic. Most of all may be Bamba and the potential he represents.