Mo Bamba’s Orlando Magic tenure filled with what could have been

Mo Bamba struggled mightily as the starter the last two games before leaving with back spasms. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mo Bamba struggled mightily as the starter the last two games before leaving with back spasms. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Mo Bamba’s five-year tenure with the Orlando Magic has finally come to an end.

Traded at last week’s deadline to the Los Angeles Lakers for Patrick Beverly, a 2024 second-round pick from the Denver Nuggets and cash consideration, that package is a true evaluation of what Bamba’s value was near the end of his Magic career.

Remembering the 2018 NBA Draft, Bamba was heralded as being a good prospect and potentially a transformative player in the league. But now looking back, his career was set behind the 8-ball from the beginning.

Bamba never quite lived up to the hype. The promise of a 3-point shooting, rim protector never materialized. And Bamba never established himself firmly with the team. He never lived up to the building.

The Orlando Magic gave Mo Bamba plenty of chances to make his mark with the team. But the once-promising center was mostly inconsistent in five seasons in Orlando.

Through 266 games and 4,873 minutes played in a Magic jersey, the most interesting stat that can encapsulate his five years is in the games he played with the Magic he contributed 97 wins and 169 losses (0.364 winning percentage).

Some flashes of brilliance that fans could sell themselves on allowed the Magic to keep him around — six blocks here and there, 15-plus rebounds, and shooting lights out from three. But it never really came together.

Bamba’s drive folded far too often, foul calls caused implosions, poor shot selection, bad rotations, and a song that got tiresome quickly after his rookie months. It never came together.

It is hard to remember what he was like coming out of high school and college where he was one of the top prospects in the nation — the number four recruit in the high school class of 2017 and eventually the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Oozing with physical attributes that could enchant anyone. Scouting reports clambering at his defensive floor to be close to perennial Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and pitches from his college coach made everyone feel, in time, he had an offensive ceiling of Joel Embiid. He even trained alongside Embiid once he arrived in the league.

There was legitimate excitement over Bamba coming out of college, even with continued questions about his frame and even his motor despite his prodigious wingspan and offensive ability.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman made Bamba the sixth pick in the 2018 draft, ahead of perennial all-stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Brunson, and dark horse Mikal Bridges.

Bamba needed time to develop. And quickly the Magic did not have the time to do so as they developed into a playoff team.

Mo Bamba sat behind Nikola Vucevic during Vucevic’s first All-Star campaign. He eventually fought Khem Birch for time as the team started to make its move toward the playoffs before a broken foot ended Bamba’s season just as the team took off.

Clifford had a reputation and history of playing veterans over young players and having a short leash on young players for making mistakes and losing minutes. With Bamba’s already dicey engine, he faded to the back of those lineups as the team made its playoff push.

The next two seasons, he was consistent in his low statistical averages, putting up 5.4 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game in an uneven sophomore season in 2020 and then 8.0 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game in 2021 as the team shifted back into rebuild mode.

Injuries were a big part of this story. In the 2020 season, Bamba struggled to recover from the foot fracture that kept him out of the end of the 2019 season. He then dealt with COVID symptoms before the season resumed in the bubble and still seemingly dealt with issues stemming from that diagnosis throughout the 2021 season.

The Magic’s rebuild gave Bamba a lifeline in that it gave him some slack to grow, develop and make mistakes without playing time pressure.

The 2022 season was the perfect storm for the best Bamba performance and even then it was lackluster.

It required the team trading Nikola Vucevic, a new coach in Jamahl Mosley, a contract year to push his drive to live up to expectations and no competition for minutes. He averaged a career-best 10.6 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game, starting alongside Wendell Carter and playing his most meaningful minutes.

Bamba got a fresh contract in the summer — albeit a two-year deal with a non-guarantee on the 2024 season. But the feeling was that it was only to build value for him to be traded.

Once his minutes were up for a fight and lineups did not depend on him at the beginning of the 2023 season, the same old Bamba came back around. He just did not click and could not push his way into the lineup, even with the team still giving him second-unit minutes and every opportunity.

The Magic would have wanted more out of Bamba’s career. They as an organization are still searching for a center to now match the two franchise players in Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero.

The franchise and the fans can thank Bamba for working on himself and building up his 3-point percentage, which inevitably grew his value so the team could trade him to the Lakers. The Magic did not even get much in return, seemingly doing a favor to Bamba to thank him for his service to the franchise. Beverley has already been cut and a second-round pick only has so much value.

The Lakers may very well give Bamba a fresh start. With no real center to be in his way besides an injury-prone Anthony Davis, having a new coach, new system, new city and being able to leave his past expectations behind, I think he will be a very good backup or possibly a suitable starting almost 3 and D stretch big archetype.

Postseason is on Orlando Magic's radar. dark. Next

Whatever Bamba becomes, it did not work out in Orlando. He never lived up to the billing, only showing flashes of what made him such a hot commodity before the draft.