2023 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Mo Bamba never lived up to the promise

Mo Bamba can put up points in a hurry and fill a stat sheet. But he never figured out how to make a real winning impact for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Mo Bamba can put up points in a hurry and fill a stat sheet. But he never figured out how to make a real winning impact for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

The idea of Mo Bamba was always a good one.

In a league of unicorns and stretch bigs, Bamba seemingly had it all. He had the length to protect the rim and the skill to shoot from beyond the arc.

In his best games, it was easy to see how he could impact both ends of the floor. His immense talent and potential were on display. A flurry of 3-pointers that go in. A blocked shot and paint presence.

Time though always trudges on. Expectations always rise. Improvement is expected. And especially on a second contract, the level of play has to rise. No team can wait forever.

There is always a ticking clock on player development. And potential has to turn into production.

Mo Bamba was always able to wrack up points and counting stats. But in the end, his time with the Orlando Magic ran out as he was unable to make a winning impact consistently.

That is where Bamba found himself after signing a two-year deal off his rookie contract. He had a second chance for a team that still needed that bit of versatility and a little bit of a spark. Bamba still could have given that spark.

But he had all the pressure to deliver. He had all the pressure to step up his game. And as became the story of his career to this point, Bamba struggled to live up to the hype completely.

His final time with the Magic gave him the chance to build and grow on his play. He was revitalized under Jamahl Mosley and with a rebuilding Magic team as opposed to the winning expectations that former coach Steve Clifford quickly put on his Magic teams.

It still was not quite enough. Bamba did not show the consistency he needed to land a rotation spot. He was still in the competition and still had the opportunity to play. He just never seized his spot in the lineup. His game never quite elevated to that level.

Bamba never lived up to the promise and the Magic officially moved on, trading Bamba at the trade deadline for a future second-round pick and Patrick Beverley, who was later waived.

It was not that Bamba played particularly poorly. He did a lot of the things that he had done early on in his career. It was the lack of progress and consistency that ultimately got him. It was not wasted potential, but just unfulfilled potential.

In 40 games with the Magic, Bamba averaged only 7.3 points per game with 4.6 rebounds per game and 1.0 blocks per game in 17.0 minutes per game. He shot 49.5 percent from the floor and 39.8 percent from three on 2.7 attempts per game (108 of his 214 field goal attempts were 3-pointers).

The stats were all down from his solid 2022 season where he averaged 10.6 points per game with 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. He shot 38.1 percent from beyond the arc.

Even some of the on/off numbers still liked Bamba’s contributions. But ultimately it was hard to see Bamba’s impact beyond his raw counting stats. And that obviously began to change this year.

Even though he played as the starting center during a good chunk of the team’s December win streak, Bamba struggled to make a positive defensive impact. At the end of the day, this is where Bamba had to make his biggest impact as a long rim protector and shot blocker.

Orlando still had a 112.4 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor. That was better than the team’s 113.4 defensive rating for the season. But after the win streak ended on Dec. 9 until Bamba was traded at the trade deadline, the Magic had a 116.8 defensive rating, the second-worst mark on the team trailing only Terrence Ross.

Even though Bamba had decent defense at the rim — opponents shot 57.2 percent against him at the rim according to Second Spectrum, a mark that trailed only Jonathan Isaac and Goga Bitadze, and opponents shot 2.80 percentage points worse than expected at the rim against him according to Basketball-Index — his defense left much to be desired. And this was always the heart of his issues with the team.

The most puzzling stat and perhaps the most telling is that Bamba generally has a positive impact defending the rim. Yet, according to Basketball-Index, opponents were never afraid to drive on him. For someone with his size and shot-blocking ability, Bamba does not exactly strike fear into anyone’s heart.

Observationally, Bamba still seemed to struggle to recognize defensive rotations, to set up in a good position in pick-and-roll coverages and to make plays. He could block shots, but teams consistently bet he would be in the wrong spot, late to recover or unable to track opponents off the ball.

Bamba’s defensive statistical profile was a mixed bag. And clearly, the Magic trusted players like Wendell Carter a lot more. They even trusted Moe Wagner a bit more even though he lived for taking charges more than he did trying to protect the rim or paint.

And that is where Bamba’s offensive struggles came into play.

Bamba is a solid 3-point shooter. He was dangerous as a popper out to the 3-point line. According to NBA.com’s tracking statistics, the Magic and Lakers scored 1.28 points per possession with Bamba as the roll man in pick and rolls.

He was one of the best 3-point-shooting big men in the league — he made 40.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes and 39.4 percent on above-the-break threes. That was his best tool in pick and rolls.

But his settling for those threes was ultimately a win for the defense. He was not a factor around the paint other than putbacks. If his 3-point shot was not falling, it was hard to find much for him to do offensively.

This lack of expansion — his inability to roll or finish effectively at the rim consistently — is ultimately what kept Bamba from reaching his potential. The Magic could certainly still use him, but they needed a bit more. And thus they moved on.

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Statistically, Mo Bamba certainly had a bit of a downgrade this season in terms of his raw numbers. That was always his main attraction. If you gave Bamba more time on the floor, he would produce.

Indeed, his per 36 minutes numbers this year with the Magic were in line with his per 36 numbers from last season — 15.3 points compared to 15.1 last year, 9.7 rebounds compared to 10.5 last year and an even 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes this year and last.

But that is just it.

Bamba can wrack up counting stats. He is good enough to do so and good enough to make enough showy plays to keep everyone believing in him.

But being successful in this league is not just about counting stats. That might have been the point Steve Clifford was trying to impart on the big man in a heavy-handed way as the team suddenly became a playoff team in his rookie season.

Bamba can score, he can block shots and he can rebound a little bit. But he never quite grasped or caught on what he needed to do to help his team win. The little nuances that it takes to anticipate a roll and be in the right spot, to position his hands to be a paint deterrent as much as a rim deterrent and shot blocker and knowing where his man is at all times.

At the end of the day, the Magic could not trust him to be in the right spots. And several of the same problems that kept him from contributing consistently to those playoff teams kept returning and coming back. When you are a player on your second contract, that is a tough thing for a team to sit through.

His time with the Los Angeles Lakers has somewhat confirmed these frustrations. The Lakers played him in only nine games since the trade. He averaged only 3.7 points per game in 9.8 minutes per game.

An ankle injury that has him out right now in the Lakers’ second-round series slowed him down for sure. Perhaps there are not any conclusions to draw from Bamba’s stint in Los Angeles. But it is hard to imagine him being a factor for the Lakers in the postseason.

And at this stage of his career, that is the ultimate judge of his success. It cannot be about stats alone.

Next. Evaluations: Chuma Okeke gets lost in the shuffle. dark

The Magic gave him plenty of chances to learn this. And finally, time ran out.