The Chicago skyline is one of the world’s most imposing with spires like the Willis Tower, Aon Center, Hancock, One Mag Mile and the Prudential Plaza seemingly reaching for the sun. Friday there is to be a new skyscraper to join them, perhaps only temporarily, Mohamed Bamba.
The extraordinary seven footer with the arms seemingly long enough to box with God is scheduled to work out for the Bulls Friday. It’s possible it will be just his first of many trips to the Advocate Center.
He’s a player who may continue to grow on you.
Or just grow.
“I actually think I’ve grown a little bit since the predraft process started,” Bamba said during the Chicago predraft combine two weeks ago.
The kid who just turned 20 this month already posted the biggest wingspan ever measured by the NBA folks, seven feet 10 inches with a standing reach of almost nine feet eight inches. Yes, the basket is 10 feet high. Bamba measured just under 7-1 with shoes and 6-11 1/4 without.
The NBA unicorn comparisons were less mythical, to players like Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Greg Oden, Hassan Whiteside, Willie Cauley-Stein and Clint Capella.
Though at 225 pounds, which is about what the skinny Lauri Markkanen reported in at last year, there don’t seem to be many Bamba will impress at arm wrestling.
Still, this is a player most predraft estimates have going between Nos. 4 and 7 in this draft.
Bamba, like several top players who met reporters at the combine, said he could or should be the No. 1 pick. He called himself the draft’s most efficient player. He won’t be No. 1. It’s likely a race between Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton and Slovenia’s Luka Doncic. Marvin Bagley likely is right after them and perhaps Michael Porter Jr. if his health is deemed satisfactory.
Then comes the musical chairs of this draft with a group of players likely to include Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr. of Michigan State, Trae Young of Oklahoma, Collin Sexton of Alabama, Wendell Carter Jr. of Duke and perhaps Mikal Bridges of Villanova or Miles Bridges of Michigan State.
There are scenarios which could leave Bamba available to the Bulls at No. 7.
If Porter slides into the top four, then comes Dallas at No. 5. Bamba attended the U. of Texas for one year and has been most often linked to the Mavericks. The Mavericks have strained for years to add a big man even as the game has changed to more perimeter play. Their abortive attempt to land DeAndre Jordan proved embarrassing. But with Dirk Nowitzki back for presumably a final season and owner Mark Cuban anxious about the losing, the Mavericks have been most rumored to pursue a veteran big man in free agency, perhaps even DeMarcus Cousins.
If that were to occur, Bamba could slide down to Orlando at No. 6. But the Magic is woefully weak at point guard while having somewhat of a surfeit of big men. Perhaps Orlando selects a guard like Young or Sexton. After the top three or four, this isn’t a draft in which stardom is assured for any players.
Bamba proved adept at the job interview portion of the Chicago combine and with reporters asking him questions about Dallas and Orlando, he said, “I believe I’m the type of big (Dennis Smith Jr.) wants to play with, play pick and roll.” Then Bamba added, “Orlando likes length.”
Then he said he was anxious to meet with the Bulls.
Then when he was asked about playing for his hometown New York Knicks, who have the No. 9 pick, he joked that he didn’t know they’d traded up to No. 1. Of course, he then extolled the virtues of the team and Madison Square Garden. Bamba, who grew up in Harlem in northern Manhattan, was playful, outgoing and personal, one of the more appealing players to meet with reporters in Chicago.
He even sympathized with the teams having to conduct so many pre-draft interviews.
“When all is said and done, if you put $30 million into a player, you want to gather as much information as you can before you invest,” he said. “So I am not surprised at how much they do.”
So despite Bamba’s weaknesses in outside shooting and strength, it would be difficult to pass on him at No. 7 given his potential as an entire defensive force.
Bamba has shown that in studying with David Robinson while in Texas and befriending Joel Embiid.
“I was fortunate enough to spend time with David Robinson,” Bamba said. “As far as dominating, we do a lot of similar things. I was able to pick his brain. He said I would enjoy it and have ups and down, but to take time to listen.
“As far one specific need to work on,” Bamba added from his sessions with Embiid, “I need to play lower. When you play lower, one thing you tend to be is more explosive with explosion up. That’s something I’ve been working on extensively.”
As well as shooting.
Bamba says he attempts hundreds of threes each day in practice. While Bamba shot only 28 percent on threes in college, he did attempt almost two per game. Overall, Bamba averaged 12.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, but also 3.6 blocks.
Those were rebound and block numbers consistent with the likes of Davis, Whiteside, Oden and Emeka Okafor in college. Bamba’s blocks and rebound percentages outranked players like Drummond and DeAndre Jordan in college. But he was woefully weak in the post on both offense and defense, being pushed around somewhat reminiscent of the way Joakim Noah was when he first came to the Bulls in 2007.
“A lot of people look at me and say I’m too skinny and that they can push me around,” Bamba said. “I think not. I may not always be shooting the ball well, but I can make sure my defense is always on point. To me, offense wins games, but defense will win championships. I take pride in playing defense. Where I come from, if you get scored on three times in a row, you are not playing the next game.”
That’s the kind of talk that would bring smiles to the Bulls management.
The Bulls ranked in the bottom five in the NBA last season in most of the main defensive efficiency statistics, though that was tilted by the late season injuries, substitutions and tryouts. Still, the Bulls amidst their developing philosophy of joining the modern NBA with the three-point shooting game believe in defensive strength.
Center Robin Lopez is going into the final year of his contract while backup Cristiano Felicio has not shown the stuff of a starter. Forward Bobby Portis is most often mentioned as the modern center or backup center for the team.
That has played out in these playoffs with the Golden State Warriors rarely playing any tall players other than Kevin Durant on the outside. The Houston Rockets even went away from Capella at times late in games. Golden State was intentionally fouling Capella in Game 7 of the conference finals. Bamba is an adequate free throw shooter at 68 percent in college. Similarly, Utah had times of replacing and finding matchups for Gobert even as he was being mentioned as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
It raises the question of how much a team wants to invest or commit to an inside big man in this era. Though so called rim protection is vital on defense and a big man like Embiid is becoming dominant in the Eastern Conference. Bamba insists he can play a similar role.
Bamba’s family is from the Ivory Coast in West Africa and he was born in Harlem. He comes from a serious working family, but carried the taint in college of the vague issue with his “motor,” shorthand for doubting his work ethic. But his coaches have denied that and in his play he’s been described as fluid and graceful as a rim runner. Sometimes when a player is so coordinated he can look relaxed.
Bamba also was sullied — though not by anyone with knowledge of NCAA hypocrisy — by an examination that actually was initiated by a half-brother about alleged illegal payments from a longtime coach/mentor. Even the NCAA exonerated him. That brother along with another went to prison on different felony deception charges.
By all accounts, Bamba has been a serious player, choosing to work his way out of often dangerous Harlem to prep schools and then onto Texas and soon the NBA. The Bulls may have a part in saying where.