Mo Bamba has always represented opportunity and potential.
In a league that was still getting used to the idea of a “unicorn,” Bamba caught everyone’s attention from the time he was in high school. How could you not be impressed with a 7-footer with a 7-foot-10 wingspan who could as easily block a shot as he could step out and shoot from deep.
That was tantalizing. It was hard not to fall in love with the idea. And Bamba performed well enough to make good on that.
His selection as the sixth pick in the 2018 NBA Draft was about that promise. Even after four disappointing and often frustrating seasons since that draft, Bamba still has all that promise and potential. Everyone can see it even if it never came completely together.
It still seems like it is in progress. And decision day appears to have come.
The Orlando Magic are turning Mo Bamba loose to free agency not tendering him a qualifying offer and giving up their restricted free agency rights.
The Orlando Magic have reportedly not offered Bamba a qualifying offer, turning him to the unrestricted free agent market and likely signaling the end of his tenure with the team. Khobi Price of the Orlando Sentinel was the first to report the news before Wednesday’s deadline.
It is not the complete ending of Bamba’s tenure. Price reports the Magic may still be in the running to retain Bamba in free agency. That interest at least exists.
But Orlando has lost significant leverage in this process.
Offering the $10.1 million qualifying offer would have ensured the Magic retained the rights to match any offer sheet he would sign. It would also place a roughly $22 million cap hold on their books to retain those rights. That would hamper the Magic’s ability to hit free agency.
Orlando is one of the few teams this offseason with significant cap space. The team will land at around $29 million in space. Bamba’s free agency loomed large over that (to some extent Gary Harris does too although he is not expected to return to Orlando) — teams are granted Bird Rights under the condition that they have to deal and retain their own free agents first even if it is just a mechanical timing thing.
There could very well have been some fear from the Magic that Bamba, unable to find a good home on the open market, would take the qualifying offer and box the Magic in with free agency.
Orlando is at least signaling the team will be active in free agency. The team needed to find a backup center at a minimum with Bamba’s future so uncertain.
The team appears to be locked in on one of the top free-agent options.
Marc Stein reports the Magic are the leading suitor for LA Clippers free agent center Isaiah Hartenstein.
Hartenstein has bounced around the league a bit but had a breakthrough last year playing for the LA Clippers, averaging 8.3 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game. He was a bruising big who can set screens and roll to the basket for monster jams. He is solid defensively and has started to show the ability to step out to the 3-point line.
In other words, a seemingly perfect backup center who finally found his place in the NBA. He seems like the ideal for what teams look for. It is a bit surprising more contending teams are not chasing him.
That may still be the case. Free agency does not officially begin until Thursday at 6 p.m. And nobody knows what amount or the years he actually will get.
But the conjunction of the Magic not extending the qualifying offer to Bamba and then the quick release of this news nugget certainly suggests the Magic have moved on or made plans to move on. Giving away the leverage of restricted free agency certainly suggests the Magic have plans to replace Bamba.
Bamba never lived up to that potential both because of his own shortcomings and things beyond his control. In the end, Orlando was not the right spot for him to grow.
He entered the team when it was in seeming transition only for the team suddenly to find its playoff footing. He played behind an All-Star and then suffered an injury to close his rookie year.
He further struggled to find his footing in his second season. Bamba was still recovering from the fracture that kept him out during the team’s playoff run the year before. And just as he seemed to be getting into rhythm, the pandemic struck and interrupted his season.
When the team returned in the bubble, Bamba was struggling to get his conditioning back after his bout with COVID. The team seemingly was moving on as it tried to chase playoff dreams.
Bamba always needed time to develop and play. And that was suddenly something Orlando could not give him.
Things changed as the team struggled with injuries in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. A new coaching staff indeed gave Bamba a fresh start.
It was one he tantalizingly took advantage of, averaging career-high 10.6 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks per game. He made 38.1-percent of his 3-pointers. His rim protection and 3-point shooting were all on display.
Playing time does wonders for young players. And on a rebuilding team, Bamba thrived in a way he had not before. He played his best and showed at least the continuing potential to be a contributor in the league.
Bamba will find a home somewhere whether it is with the Magic or not.
But his tenure in Orlando and his first four years in the league were one of missed potential. Bamba could not earn his keep on a team competing for a playoff spot. And then struggled to find his footing as the team around him changed.
It has been clear that Bamba needed a change of scenery. A different coach was the first step for him to get an opportunity. And he indeed thrived. Or at least took a step forward.
Bamba still has steps forward to take. Where that is will be the question. The one that gets answered in the coming weeks.
It may still be in Orlando. That part is not written in stone quite yet. But the writing is on the wall.
Bamba simply ran out of time to prove himself at this critical time for the franchise as they move forward. Orlando seems set to move on.