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Mohammed Bamba vs. Michael Porter Jr. is a very real NBA draft debate

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Unless some shenanigans happen, the Mavericks will likely be deciding between two prospects with lots of potential but just as many question marks.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Texas vs Nevada Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly a month’s worth of writing and speculation all comes down to this: a massive debate between Michael Porter, Jr. or Mo Bamba, two of the most likely guys there for the Mavericks at pick number five. If you’ve missed any of Jordan and Ian’s previous discussions, they hit on Jaren Jackson or Marvin Bagley, then tackle what they think the Mavericks should give up to get Luka Doncic, which guy with the last name of Bridges fits best, then second round wings, and finally second round big men to consider. Thousands of words, all over just three possible selections.

We’ve saved the best for last.

Jordan Brodess (@JBrodess): It feels like all of our conversations have led us to this one. We’ve talked about moving up (something that I think might be easier said than done), we’ve talked about guys that might fall to five, but the most realistic scenario is this: some order of Ayton-Doncic-Jackson-Bagley will be gone by the time the Mavericks are on the clock. The name consistently linked to the Mavericks by the national media is Mohamed Bamba; and yet, #MavsTwitter seems torn on his potential, and many are calling for the very large risk in drafting Michael Porter Jr. I’ve yet to see Porter projected to the Mavericks, but if fans had their say, I think many would prefer him. So where are we now? First, if Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson decide they are picking at five, no matter what, and it has to be between Bamba and Porter, who are you taking?

Ian Miller (@SmitheeMMB): I’ve said this before, but for some reason I just don’t get the feeling that Dallas is enamored with Bamba(or at least, as enamored as other teams might be). That could be completely off; it isn’t based on much beyond my evaluation of the player and my understanding of the types of prospects the Mavericks generally tend to gravitate toward. His physical tools are undeniable and he’s an impressive guy to talk to, but I feel like the Mavericks tend to prefer guys with high basketball IQ and something more than a basic skill level. Bamba’s shooting is still largely theoretical, and his motor and awareness on the court are not exactly elite.

Others have made this point, but while so many blue-chip prospects benefit from the increased spacing the NBA provides, the opposite may be true for Bamba, who could see some his value diminished there. In a tighter, shrunk college floor, and no 3-second rule, Bamba’s incredible length was a game-changer, but he won’t be able to control the floor on defense in quite the same way in the NBA This is especially possible because I don’t think he has the same quick feet and ability to read and react that Rudy Gobert -- the man he’s most often compared to -- does. It’s fun to talk about “ceiling” and “upside”, but that sort of talk can obfuscate a player’s deficiencies and the likelihood of reaching such a ceiling.

That brings us to Porter, who amazingly may be even tougher to figure out than Bamba. To those who say that the combination of Porter Jr’s health, the off-court questions, and his tendency to play a Kobe-style volume chucker game that won’t make his teammates better all makes taking him in the top 5 a non-starter...well, that makes sense! And yet, it’s hard to dismiss him, because there just aren’t many 6’11 forwards who have the shooting range and athleticism to be three-level scorers. Pairing MPJ with Dennis Smith Jr. could be sort of dynamic duo that can carry your offense for a decade.

Given the information we have and perhaps more importantly the information we don’t, I understand why arguing for Porter over Bamba feels like a huge gamble. It is a gamble. What I would say is that if Porter checks out medically and in the interview process, to the extent that the team feels comfortable with him as a person, then you pull the trigger. Otherwise, you look in a different direction.

Jordan: I’ll first say I know I’ve talked this pick in to the ground so much that I just want to know the Mavericks are 100 percent behind the guy they take. I don’t want any sense that they feel they’ve settled. If I know that whoever they select checks all their boxes in the pre-draft process, then I think fans can get behind it. Whether that’s health/off-court questions for MPJ, or upside questions on Mo Bamba, etc.

As for Porter, I think if I’m being honest, his medical concerns worry me less than hesitation about his fit with the team. Doesn’t it seem telling that there’s very little intel that links MPJ with the Mavericks? I’ve seen very few projections that put them together -- while MFFLs and local media seem to be having this Bamba-MPJ debate. There hasn’t been a lot of public detail about his attitude and team chemistry concerns (though we’ve heard some rumblings), but just from observation I’m curious what his fit with Carlisle will be. Now, like you said, if he alleviates those concerns in pre-draft then we can look at it differently. But I’m not sure that’s a clean fit; I’d actually say I’m more concerned about that here than people were last summer with Dennis Smith Jr. and Carlisle.

The DSJ-MPJ two man game would be fun for sure. I think the elephant in the room in this scenario is what this does to Barnes. You and I both see him as a third option, but even as a third option, how do Barnes and Porter play next to each other, both being chuckers? As much as you and I might suggest that the Mavericks move on from Barnes after this contract is up, I think we both know that the Mavericks seem to have him in mind for the long term, whatever role that may be. So...how does Carlisle’s offense function with two forwards who don’t pass the ball? I don’t like that look.

Ian: I don’t know how telling it is that there isn’t a lot of talk connecting Porter to the Mavericks. Dallas is notoriously protective of any info related to player acquisition, they play things very close to the chest. It is entirely possible that they’ve already looked at him and decided they want nothing to do with him, for any of the reasons we’ve laid out. Or they could love him. The same could be true of Bamba.

As to the fit with Barnes...I don’t want to digress too much here but I think drafting with Barnes in mind is not ideal. Harrison Barnes is a great guy and a good player, but he’s also almost six years older than Dennis and more than six years older than Porter. Realistically, they aren’t on the same rebuilding timeline, anyway, and if the team doesn’t quite appreciate that now, they’ll have a year or two to adjust. I’m not opposed to keeping Barnes long term necessarily, but for roster-building purposes it would have to be in a role(and more importantly a contract) that suits his skill set.

I am concerned about Porter’s tunnel vision, but the small sample size of available data and the fact that he’s still 19 give me some room for hope that he can improve and adapt. I think his handle can get better, and with his fluidity and explosiveness, I think he can become more adept at handling/creating than Barnes, down the line. In the meantime, I see plenty of different ways he can get points as a play finisher: shooting off curl screens, spotting up weak side, leaking out in transition(or grabbing a rebound and starting his own fast break). As long as he’s not playing isolation-ball 5-10 times a game, I think he can get his points without sacrificing the team concept. The important thing will be making sure another ball handler is playing next to Dennis as much as possible.

Jordan: For Bamba, I think however you project his ceiling to be, at the bare bones of what he does he fits exactly what the Mavericks have wanted in a center over the eight years. And he might be raw, and you might be able to get a cheap veteran to do similar things, but this front office has been searching for a long term solution in this role for a long time.

Much has been made about his training the last two months (there are two great pieces by The Ringer and ESPN on his process with Drew Hanlen), but I think even if his offensive game doesn’t expand to what he’s been training for, he still has the capability to do the things Carlisle asks of his bigs. Now, maybe that doesn’t fully come to fruition until three years from now, but that’s what this rebuild is about anyway.

I think you’re right about the spacing giving him problems as a defender. He clearly won’t be able to camp out in the lane. But I think he has quicker feet than his given credit for. Bamba may not be elite in space, like Jaren Jackson Jr., but there is at least a foundation -- flashes of that potential:

The Moneyball staff has spent time this season talking about the effort and production of some of these big men in college, and why aren’t they as dominant as their potential suggests (specifically guys like Ayton and Bamba). We’ve pinpointed some drive questions, and how invested they are in the game itself. You look at a guy like Marvin Bagley and see the kind of effort and energy he brings, and realize that every players’ motor doesn’t run the same. But I’ve wondered if some of it has to do with the fact they haven’t been fully challenged to this point. That’s probably wrong, because they’ve spent time playing against other blue-chip talent in their young careers. But perhaps facing new obstacles, being pushed harder and in new ways than they ever have before will ignite a new drive in some of these players.

Ian: I think answering the question of what Dallas wants in a center is a little tricky, because it’s hard to separate what they’ve done out of necessity from what they’ve done by design. They went after Dwight, and DeAndre, and Whiteside(ironically, they probably wouldn’t touch any of those three now, with possible exception of Jordan), but I think a lot of that was about finding the right partner to pair with Dirk, which won’t matter for who they draft. Meanwhile, they let Tyson Chandler go twice, and have consistently elected to fill the center spot with a platoon approach. More recently, Dirk has moved to center, allowing them to adopt a five-out style that seems very much where the league at large is going. Again, though, is this desperation, or design?

We’ve all debated and philosophized this pick to death by this point, but another issue for me with Bamba is my concern that there will be a disconnect between what he thinks he can do offensively and what he can actually do *efficiently*. I have a similar concern with Ayton, but to a lesser degree. Without getting too abstract, I think building a strong team around a high-usage center in this era is more complicated and requires more time than what Cuban and Dallas seem interested in committing. This is the biggest reason I’ve pounded the table for a wing, or alternatively, a big man who can bring a more diverse skill set. We’ve talked enough about Jaren Jackson Jr, but I think if he and Doncic are off the board, the guy I’ve slowly warmed to most is Wendell Carter Jr.

Carter Jr. brings a lot of the same “traditional” center qualities Bamba does, like rim protection, rebounding and finishing. I think he’s also a terrific passer and shows an evolving face-up game as a floor-spacer/driver. He won’t bring the same video game length or open-court speed Bamba does, but his motor and IQ are a tier above, and he’s got a much more NBA-ready body right now, despite being younger. Bamba is the “name” guy in this draft and will almost certainly get picked before, but if we’re talking about what Carlisle wants in a center, I’m not so sure Carter isn’t the right answer.

Jordan: I’m curious why you feel the team would be building the offense around Bamba, should they pick him at 5. I’m not sure we have the time to get in to this now, but I think picking in the five spot might mean taking a piece of the puzzle, not the center piece. In this draft I’m not sure that you’re building an offense around anyone outside of Ayton and Dončić. If I’m guessing, the critics for Bamba see these workout videos (that will never go away) and take from it that he’s going to demand touches in certain spots on the floor, and hijack the offensive flow to take jumpers. Maybe I’m just being too optimistic, but I don’t see that. He seems to be level headed enough to want to expand and improve his game, but also understand that the team offense is the bigger picture for success.

If you had told me a couple weeks ago we’d be considering the Mavericks taking Carter, I would probably assume the Mavericks had plans to trade back. I like what I see from Carter. He doesn’t quite have the versatility as a two way player, like Jackson. But I think he’s a high floor option, that plays solid team basketball. The hesitation for taking him at five would be his ceiling not being quite as high as most of the other big men at the top. BUT, I’ve been vocal about the fact that I think he will be a better all around player than Marvin Bagley. And if I believe that, then I should probably be good with the Mavericks grabbing him at five.