Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba still playing catch up with his opportunity

Mo Bamba has taken advantage of his first starting opportunity. But the Orlando Magic center is still catching up to what he missed in his first three years. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mo Bamba has taken advantage of his first starting opportunity. But the Orlando Magic center is still catching up to what he missed in his first three years. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba was a bit disappointed in himself following Wednesday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets had torn the Magic apart in two separate runs to bury the team. The biggest one coming at the end of the third and early fourth quarter, turning an 11-point deficit into a 28-point one. Brooklyn won easily 123-90 taking the lead behind Kevin Durant’s star power and turning the game on its head on the Magic’s frustration.

Bamba put at least some of the blame on himself for executing the game plan poorly. The Magic were trying to commit extra bodies to slow the drives of Kevin Durant and James Harden. They were willing to leave some of the Nets shooters open and take their chances.

Still, the team was late to contest shots and overhelping. This is how Orlando found itself in the hole.

Bamba, by his own admission, was late and put his team in that precarious position.

"“The game plan obviously was to get the other guys to shoot the ball as much as possible,” Bamba said after Wednesday’s game. “I think I was probably helping too much at the rim. I think next game around we have to transition to our lates and our veers a little sooner. But that’s on me. You have to know personnel.”"

Bamba has made the most of his added playing time this year. But there are still moments like these and inconsistent play that show he is still far behind the three years of experience he was already supposed to have under his belt.

Mo Bamba has made the most of his opportunity and is putting up career numbers. But the Orlando Magic center is still catching up from the time he missed.

Bamba is producing with the added playing time and focus. He is averaging a career-best 11.7 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game with an efficient 58.6-percent effective field goal percentage. To this point in the season, he has a positive offensive and defensive box plus-minus suggesting he has been a net positive on the floor.

Further adding to that suggestion, the Magic have a -6.7 net rating with Bamba on the floor (101.6 offensive rating/108.3 defensive rating) and a -11.8 net rating (96.8 offensive rating/108.5 defensive rating) with him off the floor.

Like almost all the starters — the Magic’s starting lineup has fallen to the second-best lineup in the league by net rating with at least 100 minutes under their belt following Wednesday’s blowout loss — he has benefited from being with a group that works well together. His pairing with Wendell Carter has been surprisingly effective.

It has been a good season for Bamba. And, as can be plainly seen, his ability to stretch the floor to the 3-point line and score has been a needed outlet for the team.

Even in Wednesday’s game against the Nets, Bamba proved to be a solid offensive outlet in a game where no one could make a shot. He scored 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting and made two of the team’s four total 3-pointers. It probably should have been something the team turned to more.

Orlando is still figuring out its consistent way to attack offensively.

Despite all of Bamba’s promise, there are still plenty of cracks to be concerned about. More playing time has not always equaled improvement for him.

Bamba is averaging a career-best 8.8 rebounds per game, but his overall rebound rate is at a career-low — 15.2 percent.

Some of that is certainly because he has increased his minutes and has had more rebounding opportunities. Another part of that is also certainly his minutes playing alongside  Carter, another center whose primary responsibility is to rebound.

That is not to mention that both Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs are excellent rebounders for guards. It depresses the number of rebound opportunities for Bamba.

His scoring has also been all over the map, even though all of his numbers are generally up. He has failed to reach 10 points in three of the last five games (although he has hit that mark in two of the last three games).

Bamba is a great rim protector — giving up 55.3-percent shooting at the rim according to Second Spectrum, sixth among centers who play at least 30 minutes per game. That part has never been in doubt. But his over defensive impact is still somewhat of a question.

He still needs to be a factor that makes the Magic’s defense overall better.

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The things Bamba criticized himself for in the loss to the Nets on Wednesday are still some of the mistakes that he makes. He will often go for blocks but knock himself out of position for rebounds.

Bamba is significantly better defensively than he was last year. He has been more disciplined than in previous years. But he still gets over-eager to chase blocks and get out of position. There is a balance Bamba is still seeking between making a play and staying in good position to finish defensive possessions.

That is something all young players have to learn. They just usually learn it before their fourth year. This is where Bamba’s lack of playing time in his previous three seasons has hurt him more than anywhere else.

He is still gaining the experience to diagnose and attack certain playing situations. These growing pains are necessary for him.

The learning curve might be growing here shortly though.

Wendell Carter left Wednesday’s game after getting poked in the eye. It is not yet clear whether he will miss time. But it was clear how much the Magic missed him.

When Carter left the game with 6:57 left in the third and a 15-point deficit. The team was outscored 49-31 the rest of the game as the lead ballooned. Obviously, the deficit was still pretty hefty when Carter left so that was not the only reason the Magic lost or even a major reason.

But Bamba’s numbers when Carter is out are somewhat concerning.

The Magic have a -2.5 net rating when Bamba and Carter share the floor, meaning they have a -6.7 net rating when they do not share the fall. Pairing Bamba with any non-starter has created a net rating worse than -10.1 points per 100 possessions.

Pairing Carter with any non-start has created at least two workable lineups — the team is +8.0 points per 100 possessions in lineups paired with Chuma Okeke and -3.7 points per 100 possessions in lineups paired with R.J. Hampton.

The Magic’s biggest statistical issue is finding workable lineups after breaking their starting lineup. And in games like Wednesday where the starters really struggle, it is almost impossible for the team to win.

And that will be one of the concerns if Carter has to miss time.

Carter has been one of the team’s most consistent players, helping others get open and helping the team function. Carter has the second-best on-court net rating among rotation players at -2.0 points per 100 possessions and the team is only worse without Cole Anthony on the floor (-19.4 points per 100 possessions when Carter is off the floor).

Bamba does not have those splits. And while that is not entirely about him since he anchors many of those terrible bench lineups, Bamba is still trying to reach a level of consistency.

That process might have to speed up now. It might be an opportunity Bamba has been waiting for. While his pairing with Carter has been successful, it gave him some cover to indulge and chase blocks knowing Carter was there to help too.

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Like so many things, these shortcomings are part of the process of development and improvement for a young player. Bamba is just playing catch up.