Mo Bamba makes his presence felt in career night

Mo Bamba went toe to toe with Joel Embiid in the first half and had a career night for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Mo Bamba went toe to toe with Joel Embiid in the first half and had a career night for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic’s offense was stuck in the mud, as it usually is. The team was staying in the game with 3-point shooting, but the team needed a jolt. Especially with Joel Embiid coming at them for 20 points in the first quarter.

Mo Bamba was hardly the candidate anyone thought would be able to keep the team in the game. At this point, the Magic have all but given up on getting the versatile big man they imagined when they grabbed him with the sixth pick of the 2018 NBA Draft.

Then it all seemed to click.

In the course of the second quarter, Bamba started to put all those pieces together.

The Magic ran him in pick and rolls and perfectly popped him to his spot at the top of the key for 3-pointer after 3-pointer. That would be five alone in the second quarter. Suddenly that momentum was building.

Mo Bamba had a breakthrough career game for the Orlando Magic in Wednesday’s loss, displaying all the versatility and rim protection the team imagined for him.

And it crested with Bamba blocking three shots in quick succession, sparking fast breaks that helped the Magic build a 10-point halftime lead.

On one block, Mo Bamba packed a jumper from Tobias Harris that led directly to a dunk from Franz Wagner.

This was everything the Magic imagined for Bamba. Finally, it felt like all the pieces of the puzzle came together for him and he produced and scored in a major way.

The 7-foot, sweet-shooting big man knocked down seven of eight three-point attempts in the first half against Philadelphia. He scored 28 at halftime and finished the game with a career-high 32 points, four rebounds and three blocks. He had 20 points alone in the second quarter as Orlando built a 10-point halftime lead.

Bamba showed all of his offensive promise against the Philadelphia 76ers.

"“I credit it all to my teammates,” Bamba said after Wednesday’s loss. “They were able to find me in different situations. Whether it was pin downs, or trail threes — just different types of action. And they really just embraced it, they embraced me.”"

Bamba had a first half that Magic fans dreamed of when the team selected him with the sixth pick of the 2018 NBA Draft.  He was billed then as a rim protector who could then go to the other end of the floor and hit threes.

That has not been what happened with Bamba. Injuries kept him from valuable playing experience early in his career. And he never quite clicked with coach Steve Clifford.

Entering this contract year, he was getting his first real opportunity to start consistently and given a bit more freedom defensively to roam and be a shot-blocking presence. That has helped Bamba have a career season.

Bamba is averaging 10.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. All are career highs. He is shooting now 35.8-percent from deep and a 53.8-percent effective field goal percentage.

"“I was happy for Mo that he was able to have a good performance,” acting head coach Jesse Mermuys said after Wednesday’s loss. “I want to mention his defense first. His blocked shots and his presence off the ball were pretty good. He helped us and got us going and created some energy for us there. Obviously, his three-ball got going. Mo is a really big-time 3-point shooter. I thought he took great shots. He was in a rhythm and he had a good night for us.”"

It has certainly helped Bamba reclaim part of his career. Even as rumors begin to rise about his potential departure, whether it comes at the trade deadline or in restricted free agency this offseason.

Still, it was fitting his best game of his young career came against center Joel Embiid, who scored 50 points.

Bamba worked out with Embiid through their shared trainer, Drew Hanlan. The two have had a long-standing friendship and Bamba has always played his best against Phildaelphia — averaging 11.4 points per game, his second-highest scoring average against any individual team (he only scores more against the New York Knicks).

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Bamba would even get a jab back at Embiid when the two first met up in a preseason matchup. He muscled up a dunk over Embiid and both took shots at each other on social media with contrasting photos.

It looked like the beginning of a great rivalry for years to come. This seemed to show the potential for Bamba’s career.

But fast forward four years, it was not much of anything until this season.

In a November matchup against the 76ers, Bamba scored 11 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked a career-high six block shots.

He looked good that game and had a promising start to the season. But after missing 11 games with injuries and being on the COVID-19 list, it looked like Bamba’s Magic career was again on life support, despite a strong start.

Bamba did not start in the team’s last game, but came back into the starting lineup with vengeance against Philadelphia. It was a great night for Bamba offensively and he had consecutive block shots to protect the paint against perimeter players.

But the game also showcased all of his weaknesses.

Multiple times Joel Embiid or Andre Drummond was able to overpower and force him to backpedal in the post. He had a poor rebounding game and he needs to improve his cutting and catching passes in the lane.

After such a strong first half, the Sixers started switching on his screens and completely locked himout of the game. He scored only four points in the second half as the Magic faltered under the weight of Embiid’s brilliance.

It would also be nice for Bamba to develop a post-game, although he did look great on a couple of back-to-the-basket fadeaway shots.

But, nevertheless, Bamba showcased his quick jump, uncanny ability to shoot the ball well and with good form against the 76ers. He still needs to increase his assertiveness in the post and for his shot to continue to fall.

More importantly, Bamba needs consistency. He does not need to score 30 points every night, but games like this should be much more frequent rather than the sometimes pedestrian play he has shown throughout much of his career.

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More than anything, Bamba needs to play with force and make a true impact on a nightly basis for him to carve his place for the Magic. That is what stood out about Wednesday’s career night. It was impossible to ignore Bamba and he stood tall in the end.