2018 NBA Draft
2018 NBA Draft

Early struggles fuel Texas phenom Mo Bamba's drive to improve his game

Chris Dortch

Chris Dortch NBA.com

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Mar 16, 2018 1:03 PM ET

Mohamed Bamba finished second in the nation with 108 blocks.

Ten games into his college career, Mohamed Bamba -- the Texas freshman who looks like he stepped out of a “Plastic Man” cartoon -- was frustrated.

After what he considered a handful of tough outings against fellow big men Marvin Bagley of Duke, Jonathan Williams and Rui Hachimura of Gonzaga and Mo Wagner of Michigan, Bamba didn’t think he was putting his God-given advantages -- he’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan -- to good use.

So he asked Texas coach Shaka Smart to go harder on him.

Actually, that idea had come from long-time Texas equipment manager Rob Lazare, who had sage advice for the youngster.

“He said, ‘guys never leave their colleges saying I wish coach wasn’t so hard on me,’ ” Bamba said. “Instead, they leave saying ‘I wish coach was on me harder. I could have worked so much harder and gotten so much better.’ ”

Bamba wasn’t about to let what he and every NBA general manager knew would be his only college season get past him without deriving maximum benefit.

“At first, coach Smart was big on not overwhelming me,” Bamba said. “But I told him my mental capacity is a lot more than you think it is. I can take it.”

You’d have to know Bamba -- and after one conversation you realize quickly that he’s got as much going on between his ears as he does physically -- to realize that wasn’t some idle boast. He was ready for whatever Smart wanted to send his way. Soon, Bamba was watching more film than a movie critic as he and Smart studied, sometimes frame-by-frame, his weaknesses.

The jump he’s made from pre-conference to Big 12, and from Big 12 to now [the NCAA Tournament], has been incredible. I’m talking about his game, his mindset. It just comes to him now. "

Mo Bamba's teammate Dylan Osetkowski

But Smart is unfailingly positive, so he made sure to show Bamba what he was doing right. Bamba had played those first 10 games much better than he thought, averaging 10.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. But there was room for improvement, as his 47.6 percent field-goal percentage and 57.9 free-throw percentage underscored.

After Bamba and Smart began their film sessions, Bamba’s averages improved to 14.3 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 3.5 bpg. He shot 57.1 percent overall, 72.5 percent from the free-throw line and collected 11 double-doubles.

“Those first few games, he was obviously trying to learn the speed of things, the game itself,” said Texas junior Dylan Osetkowski. “The jump he’s made from pre-conference to Big 12, and from Big 12 to now [the NCAA Tournament], has been incredible. I’m talking about his game, his mindset. It just comes to him now. He doesn’t have to find it.”

The rest of the Big 12 figured that out quickly as Bamba was wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor. He led the conference with 14 double-doubles and was also tops in the league and second in the nation in blocked shots (108, 3.7 bpg). Eight of those blocks -- a Texas freshman record -- came against mighty Kansas.

“He’s as good as anybody I’ve been around or coached against regularly,” said Texas assistant coach Darrin Horn, a former coach at Western Kentucky and South Carolina. “That would include Anthony Davis [Kentucky’s 2012 national player of the year] and those kinds of guys. He’s a really unique guy in terms of what he can do physically. With his length, he can sit down and move his hips and defend as well. It allows him to do so much on both ends.”

Horn doesn’t think Bamba, who’s a bit on the lean side, should be typecast as a shot blocker. Horn cites Bamba’s ability to make the occasional 3-pointer and put the ball on the floor, but raves about his passing prowess -- especially when he’s facing double teams.

“I think he has a chance to be a really good offensive player at the next level,” Horn said. “Some of it he can’t do here, because there’s not enough space on the floor, whether it’s a ton of zone, or people sitting in his lap. The way they come at him, it’s hard to iso him.

“I think he can be really good at the elbow, kind of Kevin Garnett style, whether it’s an elbow jumper or putting it down for a dribble or two to make a move off that. He’s got ability and feel to do all that. He’s maybe not polished enough quite yet, and right now there’s not enough space. But one day, he’s going to be able to do all that at the next level.”

With that incredible wingspan of his, Bamba is also a great rebounder, in or out of his area.

“He’s as good a defensive rebounder as I’ve seen,” Texas assistant Mike Morrell said. “And his numbers suggest that as well. He’s got really good hands. He moves well. He’s stronger and sturdier than he gets credit for. He can go get it at the top and grab the ball at its peak. He’s a one percent or even less in terms of that.”

Bamba tops off the package with a maturity beyond his years. Asked to pick out his young teammate’s strength. Osetkowski didn’t hesitate.

“Something not everybody will say is his maturity level,” Osetkowski said. “His ability to take in coaching, criticism, whether it’s positive or negative. His ability to really work with that. That bodes well for him at the next level. It gives him the opportunity to take what his coaches and other players tell him and run with it.”

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Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.

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