They have come seemingly all at once -- new, freakish size in the NBA with the ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot from deep and block everything that moves. Kristaps Porzingis begat Joel Embiid, who begat this year’s group of young big men who have grown up facing the basket rather than with their backs to it.
Among the most intriguing of the 2018 Draft class is Mo Bamba, the 20-year-old from Texas via Harlem, where he grew up -- fast, as city kids tend to do, learning the game on the hardtops around New York City, while his parents, natives of Ivory Coast, wondered what the increasing fuss was around their son. He, on the other hand, has tended to handle the attention with aplomb and a smile. In a group full of long, tall people, Bamba still stands out, with an insane wingspan of 7-foot-10 that allows for court coverage the likes of which hasn’t been seen.
Bamba has been in the spotlight for a while -- the Westtown (Penn.) High School team on which he played featured teammates like Cam Reddish, a blue-chip guard who’ll play for Duke next season -- and played against the likes of the No. 1 pick in 2018, Deandre Ayton. At Texas, he starred for Coach Shaka Smart, himself among the biggest names in the sport. After one season in Austin, where he shattered the school record for blocked shots in a season, Bamba declared for the Draft, assured he’d be a high Lottery pick. But Bamba has also shown a willingness to work on what he doesn’t -- or, at least, didn’t -- do that well.
He went to California for weeks with noted player development coach Drew Hanlen, who deconstructed Bamba’s jumper from the ground up. Hanlen lowered Bamba’s shot pocket, adjusted his fingers on the ball and eliminated a hitch Bamba had before shooting. Bamba displayed much improved form before the Draft, but even if he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, he was going high -- and, he did, to the Orlando Magic with the sixth pick overall. Desperate to regain relevance in the East, the Magic hired Steve Clifford after he was fired by Charlotte to try and improve their awful defense. At the least, Clifford inherited ridiculous size on his roster, with Bamba joining 6-foot-10 second-year forward Jonathan Isaac and newly re-signed 6-foot-9 forward Aaron Gordon.
Bamba must show he can be a killer on the floor like Embiid, and will work to make that happen. The only significant question about him coming into the Draft was the consistency of his motor at Texas. In Las Vegas this week for Summer League with his new team, Bamba is getting his feet wet while keeping them firmly planted to the ground.
Me: I know you’ve spent a lot of time with Drew on the shot. What feels better now?
Mo Bamba: Everything. The mechanics are so much cleaner now than they were in college. I think the difference between college and now is just a matter of just repetition, being able to change my jump shot dramatically because of how much I’ve gone in and worked on it.
Me: So with time, you can basically improve anything?
MB: Yeah, my jump shot is night and day.
Me: He also told me that one thing he wanted to keep working with you on after the Draft was, you have a little jump to your left when you shoot?
MB: Yeah, that’s a bad tendency that I have. That’s something Drew didn’t want to change. He changed a lot of things, and that’s one of the best things about working with Drew -- he knows boundaries, and he knows how much is too much. That’s one of the things he didn’t want to change right off the bat. But that’s something I’ve been conscious of and something I’ve been working on since he pointed it out.
Me: Given where you played high school, was there more pressure on you playing for Westtown or playing for Texas?
MB: I’d say there was more pressure playing -- well, actually, it was both, equal. My sophomore year at Westtown, there was a lot of pressure, because I was at a program that had never won a state championship, and had gotten to the finals three or four years in a row. At Texas, I was coming to a team that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament the year before. So I’d say it was pretty equal.
You’re making decisions at a very young age that most kids don’t even come close to making. I credit a lot of my success to being from Harlem, growing up there."
Me: I would imagine playing on a team like that in high school, with Cam and all the others, maybe prepared you not only for college, but playing in the pros.
MB: Yeah, Cam can go. He’s a really good basketball player. And I know for a fact I’ll see him here next year.
Me: What was Harlem like to grow up in, day by day?
MB: It was, when people ask that, I pretty much tell them that you just grow up fast. You’re making decisions at a very young age that most kids don’t even come close to making. I credit a lot of my success to being from Harlem, growing up there.
Me: Harlem’s changed a little the last few years.
MB: Yeah, gentrification is real. It’s real.
Me: What was it like seeing that demographic shift?
MB: Well, I was kind of there before gentrification kind of really hit. Obviously there was a bunch of condos that went up and it was pretty cool to see. It was every time I came back home -- I’d see a new development going up.
Me: Best advice your parents ever gave you?
MB: I wouldn’t say it was direct advice or a quote. I’d say the best thing my parents passed on to me was to let me make my own mistakes and figure out on my age how to kind of see the world on my own. Growing up as the youngest child, one or two years after your siblings, obviously that’s great. You’re learning without truly making the mistakes on your own. But at some point in your life, you’re gonna have to learn on your own. You’re gonna have to fall to rise.
Me: Conversely, then, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made so far?
MB: I’d say that the biggest mistake I’ve made so far was not committing to Texas earlier. I think waiting was awesome. I was very methodical about waiting, very strategic about what I wanted in a university. But at the same time, if I could go back, I probably would have committed my junior year, so I could hit the ground running and build the relationships, get to know people.
Me: How much freedom did Shaka give you when you were there to try things on the floor that might not necessarily be good for the team, but could be good for you individually down the road?
MB: Coach Smart, he’s given me so much freedom to sort of grow into who I was. That’s been a big thing in my life -- my parents and all of my coaches. Coach Smart did a great job of just letting me come to terms with myself, as a basketball player and a person.
Me: I saw in one of your interviews before the Draft that you don’t think people really understand you when you say you’re a unicorn. So define that for me as you see it.
MB: Well, I mean, people kind of have a concept of what it means. To me, it’s just someone who makes plays that have never been seen before -- a 7-foot big guard, those are all unicorns to me.
Me: You played against Ayton and guys like Jarrett Allen (the Nets’ first-round pick in 2017) in high school, and I know how much you’ve looked at Joel Embiid on tape. Are you guys the new normal when it comes to the next generation of bigs?
MB: Yeah, I think this is becoming a theme, and you’ll see it more and more with guys coming out of high school. One of the guys you’ll see coming up is James Wiseman (the 6-foot-11 rising senior center currently playing at East High School in Memphis, and who is considered by many to be the top college prospect in the Class of 2019). He’s younger, but he does a lot of the things that I do, that Deandre does, that Jarrett does. It’s refreshing to see so many people that can do what I do.
Me: If you were 6-feet tall instead of seven, what would you be doing?
MB: I’d have to be around the game, like a scout or a GM, something around the game.
Me: How did the basketball bug bite you so hard growing up?
MB: Honestly, it’s just my competitive nature. It bleeds over into other aspects of my life. But basketball is just something that I really excelled at, and whenever I hit kind of adversity, or whenever I do something that makes me vulnerable enough to get better and to ask for help, I just took this and ran with it.
Me: Since you’re a kid, I have to ask you how good you are at Fortnight?
MB: I play recreationally. One of my best friends is really good at it, and whenever I play him I get Ws.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
Got called Rook today for the first time 🤷🏽♂️— Miles Bridges (@MilesBridges) July 3, 2018
-- Hornets’ rookie Miles Bridges (@MilesBridges), Tuesday, 5:32 p.m., who was apparently baptized by old man/second-year teammate Dwayne Bacon -- a whopping two-plus years older than the 20-year-old Bridges.
THEY SAID IT
“Have you ever been unemployed? Were you nervous then? All right, that answers the question.”
-- DeMarcus Cousins, to local reporters in the Bay, when asked if he was nervous on the first day of the negotiating period, when he didn’t have many offers from teams with whom he wanted to play, before he reached out and quickly reached a deal with the Warriors on a one-year contract.
“I was freaking out. She was saying ‘hello, it’s great to have you.’ I was like starstruck. I was speechless. She is the Michael Jordan of the WNBA.”
-- Suns rookie and overall number one pick Deandre Ayton, to local reporters, detailing his meeting with Phoenix Mercury legend Diana Taurasi.
“I have a crush on wingspan.”
-- Knicks coach David Fizdale, to local reporters, detailing his thoughts playing around with huge lineups in New York next season -- which could include first-round pick Kevin Knox (6-foot-9) at guard with Kristaps Porzingis (7-foot-2) at small forward next to Luke Kornet (7-foot-1; played for the Knicks’ G League affiliate in Westchester) and Mitchell Robinson (7-foot-2), the team’s second-rounder last month, at center.
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