It took far longer than expected, but Mo Bamba finally got the opportunity to show what he can do for the Orlando Magic this season.
A mixture of injury, illness and coaching stubbornness — as well as Bamba’s own inability to adapt to the NBA — limited his time on the court during his first three seasons. But the reset at last season’s trade deadline acted as a fresh start for the center, a chance for him to show why he was taken sixth overall back in the 2018 NBA Draft.
But the fact the team chose to extend Wendell Carter but not Bamba shows how he still has some way left to go to convince people he can be a starting-caliber center on a good NBA team. While Carter has proved to be one of the Magic’s most reliable performers since arriving from the Chicago Bulls, the team still does not really know which Bamba they will be getting each night.
The flashes are there, but Mo Bamba still has a way to go to show he can be a consistent starting-caliber level center in the NBA. And the Orlando Magic have a major financial decision to make as they wait.
When Bamba was taken out of Texas back in 2018, instant, and somewhat easy, comparisons were drawn with Rudy Gobert. His enormous 7-foot-10 wingspan and ability to block shots were obvious parallels to draw to the Frenchman but set the bar extremely high for what he was expected to be on defense.
And the addition of having a three-point shot further added to the hype around Bamba and what he could be – a shot-blocking, three-point shooter that can contribute on both ends of the court.
Bamba did manage to show these two core skills on the court this season. His 1.7 blocks per game were enough to rank him a respectable ninth in the NBA while he shot an impressive 38.1-percent from three-point range.
The 23-year-old has shown his ability to affect opposition offenses in the paint with his wingspan. His incredible reach restricts jumpers and floaters close to the basket and forces teams into a decision over whether to attack Bamba at the rim or kick back out to the perimeter.
According to NBA.com, opposing teams shot 62.6-percent on attempts taken less than five feet away from the basket against the Magic this season which ranks the team as the 11th best in the NBA, while the 16.9 field goals made per game from the same distance ranks the team eighth best.
Those numbers are more impressive from between five and nine feet, with teams making 38.7-percent of attempts and 3.7 field goals per game which ranks the Magic fourth and fifth respectively.
According to data from Second Spectrum, opponents shot 57.0-percent at the rim against Bamba, a number that was better than what Carter produced this season. And according to data from Basketball-Index ranked in the 93rd percentile in rim field goal percentage against expected field goal percentage, with opponents shooting 6.16 percentage points worse when Bamba was defending the rim.
Obviously, Bamba cannot be the only one to take credit for this but as the starting center for much of the year, he certainly had a big impact.
His blocking stats on the surface are not exactly eye-popping but they do at least show he can protect the rim — though for someone with his physical tools it is reasonable to expect a lot more. It is not ridiculous to say that Bamba has the potential to lead the league in blocks over a regular season, or at least make it into the top three because of his wingspan.
There is still a lot Bamba needs to improve defensively. Overall the Magic were slightly better defensively with Bamba off the floor (111.3 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor compared to 110.7 with him off the floor).
But Bamba was one of the best paint presences in the league by several metrics.
The area where Bamba shone most this season, however, was in his 3-point shooting. For someone with his wingspan to shoot the three-ball as well as he does is surprising and hugely impressive. On a team that continues to lack good shooting, it is also very important.
Bamba can space the floor effectively as a catch-and-shoot threat from three — knocking down 39.3-percent of his threes off the catch according to NBA.com. His shooting ability adds another dimension to a Magic offense which does not have a lot of dimensions. He can shoot off the catch in a pick-and-pop situation or space the floor when one of the guards drives into the paint.
His career-best 32-point night against the Philadelphia 76ers in January when he made seven of his eight three-point attempts showed just how much upside Bamba has as a shooter. At his size and his length, there is no one that can really block his jumper.
But despite all the positives, noticeable holes remain in Bamba’s game. Arguably none more so than in his ability to rebound the basketball.
Bamba averaged a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game this past season but a lot of that was by proximity. He rarely grabbed contested rebounds and he often over-rotated to help at the rim, leaving the magic exposed to offensive rebounds.
He is not great in physical matchups when it comes to boxing out and still gets outmuscled too often.
The Magic gave up 13.4 points on second-chance possessions this season — the 12th most in the NBA. While not horrible, for a team whose future success will rely so much on its ability to defend, it is something that has to be improved. And Bamba has to take his fair share of the responsibility for this below-par statistic.
Bamba is a deterrent in the paint, but he still does not anchor it like players of similar size. Much of the criticism of the center over the years has been that he plays like someone smaller and that remains a fair statement. He does not give you the physicality Deandre Ayton, for example, provides.
Bigger matchups are happy to post Bamba up and punish him at the rim, and guards and wings feel as though they can have success by driving at him. He does not block shots at a high enough rate to stop this and teams still take advantage of his lack of quickness in adapting to what is happening in front of him. Other players still get by him too easily.
The questions in previous seasons over his motor and effort have been answered somewhat, though there is still more he can do to improve. There are still times in games where he fades into the background and is not impacting the game positively.
And while his offensive game remains as limited as it is — consisting primarily of catch and shoot threes, second-chance points and alley-oops — it is difficult for the Magic to weigh whether his positive impact on the court outweighs the areas where he still falls short.
Bamba’s future is still unclear.
Player Grade: B
It is possible that he will not be on the Orlando Magic next season with his rookie deal ending, but while the team is still in its early rebuild stages it would certainly be good to see Bamba get another year of development to see where he can grow.
The issue is that Wendell Carter — who often shared the court with Bamba this year as more of a four than a five – has consistently outperformed him defensively. As the team searches for more offensive creativity, with Jonathan Isaac returning, and with a draft class stacked with talented big men, the question has to be asked as to whether this combination will continue into the future.
Bamba will enter restricted free agency this offseason. And while Bamba has publicly said that he wants to remain in Orlando and develop with this team, it is now a matter of dollars and cents.
It might be that Carter’s future instead lies at the 5 over Bamba as the team, hopefully, acquires more talent. That may squeeze Bamba out and turn him to the market and another fresh opportunity to thrive.
At the moment Bamba probably projects as someone that can come off the bench, hit some threes, block a couple of shots and try to make life difficult for second unit offenses. He can be an important role player in the NBA.
But a strong end to the season for Bamba personally and the team’s collective defense shows there is still more to come from him. The frustration with what he does compared with what he could do remains, however. And the Magic have to ask themselves how long they are willing to continue with his development.