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NBA Draft 2018: The Mavericks and Mo Bamba is a bet on the future that could pay off

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Big man Mo Bamba’s prospects in the NBA are wide ranging, and it may take time to watch it play out.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Nashville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What would it mean to get picked by the New York Knicks? “That’s funny, I didn’t know the Knicks were in contention to get the number one pick.”

“Embiid is giving me all the cheat codes.

“I need you to coach me harder.

Spend enough time watching or reading Mohamed Bamba interviews, and you’ll soon realize the mild mannered, uber-intelligent center gives quite the pull quote. It’s part of what makes the young man so appealing, so magnetic. There is a subtle confidence that sneaks up on you, that makes Bamba the man all the more likable — that’s before the go-go gadget rim protector even steps foot on the floor.

Many top scouts and analysts have labeled the recent 20-year-old big man one of the most intriguing prospects in this lottery class. The potential is wide ranging, but the journey to get there may take some time. That’s if he even reaches his ceiling at all.

The Basics

Bamba broke Twitter in the middle of May, when he measured in at nearly 7’1”, 225 pounds, with a standing reach of 9’7.5” (whatthe?!), and a 7’10” wingspan (whathe whatthe?!!!). It’s the exact sort of thing a center who got a little lost in a sea of elite big men at the top of the lottery needed to do — leverage his insane measureables to remind every GM what might be possible with a young player possessing historical length.

It’s not like it was a secret before the NBA Combine. Bamba spent the last 10 months at the University of Texas swatting anything near an Austin zip code. Averaging 13 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in 30 minutes per game (Per 36 averages of 15.4/12.6/4.4), the big man established himself as one of the elite defenders in college basketball. Here are the stats he was top-10 nationally: Defensive Box Plus/Minus (7th), Blocks (4th), Block Percentage (3rd), and Blocks Per Game (2nd), warrants a long hard look at what Bamba might be at the next level.

Strengths

See above.

But really, you can’t coach length like that. It’s Bamba’s one distinct advantage over his peers at the top of the class. While in school, Bamba deployed his physical range to block shots, nab errant lobs, and corral long rebounds. Even in help defense, getting around that wingspan in space is like navigating the lasers in Ocean’s Twelve or Entrapment. He already has a solid foundation in the pick and roll, switching in to open space and baiting the ball handler into contested shots. length will be his biggest weapon, and he may need to fall back on it as he gets comfortable in the pros.

His defensive footwork is sound in switches. He may not read angles as well as say, Jaren Jackson Jr., but Bamba shows promise when tasked with containing smaller playmakers — showing little panic if he gets isolated.

Something that might be untapped is his offensive ability away from the rim. It’s been well publicized that Bamba has set his sights on strengthening and expanding his offensive repertoire in the pre-draft process — primarily, by working with Founder/CEO of Pure Sweat Basketball, Drew Hanlen. A former player turned skills consultant, Hanlen has countless NBA clients like recent notables Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum making headlines. All those empty gym videos of Bamba flame-throwing? Yeah, that’s with Hanlen. Bamba will never have Tatum’s offensive game, but like the Celtics’ young star, Bamba has spent the last month-plus rebuilding his jump shot, and it looks like it’s already paying dividends.

It is encouraging to see the progress in his mechanics, and the fluidity of his footwork. Outside of finishing at the rim (where he was a solid 77 percent), even if he can develop that turn around baseline jumper, that would go a long way to making Bamba a full time contributor offensively. Not to mention his focus on stretching his shot — Bamba was 31 percent from NBA range on a tiny sample size at UT. But with Hanlen, he’ll eventually put up 350 threes per day in an effort to expand his jumper. This is all part of a three-stage, 12-week process to “improve three areas in his game: low-post, mid-post, and shooting”, per John Gonzalez’s The Ringer article. That sort of commitment to improving areas he knows need attention is a major strength.

Which segues to another of Bamba’s primary assets — his demeanor and IQ. Detailed above, his well-spoken, quiet confidence shining through in every interview isn’t always a tool these young one-and-done players have. Granted some of this is speculative, but he already looks the part of a locker room leader, the kind of player you want to strengthen the culture of the roster. Some have questioned how he can better translate that to the floor (more on that later), so there is still more to prove. But the young center appears to have a solid head on his shoulders, something that will serve him well as he enters a whole new world in the NBA.

Weaknesses

It’s harder to find reliable pre-combine measurements — Draft Express’ database (RIP) lists Bamba at a light 207 pounds. At the NBA Combine in May, Bamba tipped the scales at 225. That’s putting him on the right track. He’s spent time in the weight room during his training, and is allegedly consuming over 6500 calories per day...just to break even. All that is to say Bamba has the frame to add muscle to his upper body, but he’s going to need to work very hard to add core and lower body strength.

Too often, Bamba would allow his opponent to push him so deep on the block that the entry pass got them right to the rim. Against more experienced big men, he’ll need to root himself better and not rely solely on his wingspan to protect the rim. Bamba has a solid understanding of verticality in altering shots, but it’s less affective if he’s getting pushed under the basket.

The biggest buzzword knock you’ll hear on Bamba are questions about his motor. There are times where he appears to check out of possessions, or shows less fire than you want from a hungry young star. With a ceiling like Mo’s, you’d like to know he’s going to go out and annihilate teams, and that’s not what you see from him consistently. There are flashes of that instinct when he is invested and focused. So making that a point of emphasis will be vital to him seeing early playing time. Critics should also consider his personality itself, and that maybe some of the negativity is overblown. But fans shouldn’t expect a Marvin Bagley III level “motor” out of Bamba. That said, it’s impossible to play armchair psychologist.

Finally, after all the talk about his offensive possibility above, the truth is Bamba is at a very young stage of development. It’s unclear what realistic expectations are for him on that end of the floor. It’s possible he can become a solid pick and pop or pick and roll man. But his time in Austin was inconsistent.

Mo Bamba’s mid range game leaves a lot to be desired. Chart per TheStepien.com

Bamba didn’t benefit from the same spacing his lottery counterparts had, but going 23 of 69 (33 percent) from the mid range is unacceptable. Additionally, his ability as a passer is unclear. He has vision to pass from the high post, and in the outlet to push in transition, but lacks vision as a playmaker off the dribble. The Longhorns were hurting for dynamic playmaking options, so it’s possible in NBA spacing that Bamba will regain some of the vision he had in high school. But for now, his all around offensive game will take time — which means NBA coaches and GMs will have to practice patience after drafting him.

Fit with the Mavericks

Imagine the look on Rick Carlisle’s face when Bamba walks in to his office day one and says what he said to Shaka Smart. Bamba was midseason at UT, knowing he would be leaving after his freshman season, but he wasn’t fine with coasting on a lack luster Longhorns squad. And he wanted Smart to push him.

That screams Carlisle player. There has always been apprehension from the outside about how Carlisle would handle young players in a rebuild. His coaching of Dennis Smith Jr. should dispel the critics. And from The Warlock Carlisle’s approach with Nerlens Noel the last season and a half, it’s clear he’s dying for a versatile big man that wants to be pushed to his limits.

On the floor, the Mavs would be drafting their future defensive anchor, a player who could be competing for Defensive Player of the Year annually in his prime. Carlisle has a desire for a big man who can protect the rim, switch in the open floor, and stretch the offense by hitting shots or rolling hard. Bamba possesses most of those skills, and has the potential to make good on all of them. If the Mavs want sustained competitive rosters, they are going to need to find long term solutions at multiple positions, and Bamba would shore up a role that the Mavs have been in search of since 2011.

But, by drafting him they’d be committing themselves to a patient rebuild. Yes, they can go out and find players this summer (and next) in free agency. But Bamba would most likely come off the bench to start his rookie year. And while he’ll surely see his fair share of the floor, the time it will take for him to reach his ceiling means building the roster for the future, not the now.

NBA Comparisons

Every single person talking about Bamba compares him to Rudy Gobert — and possibly “Rudy Gobert with a jumpshot”. And that’s probably true. But it’s setting a high bar. Maybe he becomes some version of Jermaine O’Neal? It’s hard to gauge Bamba’s potential and who he resembles, primarily because there hasn’t been someone with his length, high ceiling and low floor.

If he can’t make good on the comp above, he may resemble Maverick hot dog enthusiast Nerlens Noel on the floor. His attitude and demeanor (and measurements) don’t really mirror Noel. But it wouldn’t surprise to hear their names linked if Bamba doesn’t pan out. What that says about Bamba the player, and his prospects with the Mavs remains to be seen.


Various stats and quotes from The Ringer, Sports-Reference.com, Draft Express and The Stepien.