Bamba Aware of What It's Going to Take This Summer to Get Better and Be Stronger

This summer will be extremely important for Bamba as he prepares for second NBA season
by John Denton

ORLANDO – If an abbreviated first year in the NBA taught rookie center Mo Bamba anything it’s that professional basketball is a business and change is almost always a constant at this level.

Bamba, 20, found that out the hard way this past season when a stress fracture injury in his left leg ended his rookie season on Jan. 31. That meant that the celebrated No. 6 pick from the 2018 NBA Draft had to set back and watch the Magic pull off a stirring 22-9 closing kick that helped the franchise reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

That run, of course, came with all-star center Nikola Vucevic leading the way and talented reserve center Khem Birch providing some stellar toughness and rim-protection off the bench. Going forward, Vucevic will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, while Birch will either be unrestricted or restricted depending on whether or not the Magic make him a qualifying offer. That means Bamba is the only center assured of being back with the Magic next season, barring some sort of offseason trade.

That realization has shaped the way that the 7-foot Bamba has headed into the first offseason of his NBA career. He knows that he is being looked to as someone needed to make major strides between his first and second seasons – a time when most players and coaches feel young prospects make their biggest growth. That improvement is even more magnified by the looming free agencies of Vucevic and Birch this summer.

``It’s just something that having (Vucevic back with the Magic) would be great because he’s an all-star caliber player, but to be able to come off his footsteps and learn from areas where he’s strong at and not strong at, it’s going to be big for me,’’ Bamba said of his approach this offseason. ``I’m looking forward to whatever challenges are ahead.’’

Bamba’s immediate challenge is to get himself healthy and strong enough to get back fully on the basketball court so that he can grow his game. Bamba’s stress fracture was caught early enough on Feb. 2 that he was able to avoid surgery and needed only a minor procedure on his leg to repair his shin. That allowed him to get in plenty of weight room work and some time on the court shooting no-impact jump shots as the Magic were surging toward the playoffs.

Despite Bamba suffering what proved to be a season-ending injury, the Magic made sure the rookie center was still engaged in the action on the court and continued to grow. Using a tactic he used years earlier when Charlotte forward Michael Kid-Gilchrist missed time because of a shoulder injury, Magic head coach Steve Clifford had Bamba file reports following every game. Those reports, which included observations on the center play between the two teams and the offensive and defensive sets the two teams were running, were shared daily with Clifford and Magic assistant coach Mike Batiste. The process proved to be both therapeutic and educational for the always-inquisitive Bamba, Clifford said.

``I don’t think he could have handled it any better,’’ Clifford said. ``He was very serious about it and put a lot into it, and I think it helped him even more to understand the value of knowing centers in this league and the guys he’s going to be playing against for years to come.’’

To play against those guys for years to come, Bamba knows that he must add some bulk and strength to his rail-thin 221-pound frame. Also, he must be in better shape physically so that he can play with the offensive energy that Clifford demanded of him as a screener and a player who either crashed hard to the rim or popped for open 3-point shots. Too often as a rookie, Bamba’s lack of strength or conditioning resulted in him getting pushed under the rim or getting outplayed by foes capable of pulling off multiple efforts in the paint.

Again, Bamba said he is using Vucevic – who averaged 20.8 points and 12 rebounds this past season – as a guide for the things that he needs to work on prior to his second NBA season.

``A lot of it stems from the weight room and putting on weight and being in tip-top condition and shape to be able to play how many ever minutes,’’ he said. ``And a lot of it comes from a lot of stuff I see from (Vucevic) as far as balancing low-post and mid-post work.’’

If Bamba needs another example to prove to him the importance to offseason progress he needn’t look any further than teammate and friend, Jonathan Isaac. After being limited to just 27 games as a rookie, Isaac evolved into being a key piece for the Magic this past season while averaging 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.31 blocks a game. AS part of a young core that includes Aaron Gordon, Markelle Fultz, Wes Iwundu and Isaac, Bamba understands the importance of growing his game this offseason.

``I’m super excited,’’ Bamba said. ``This summer is big. I think everyone in the organization knows how big this summer is going to be for me as far as development.

``J.I.’s leap and who he is becoming has been nothing short of incredible,’’ he added. ``But the mentality that I have is that everyone is their own player and people develop differently.’’

Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, who was delighted to draft Bamba at No. 6 last June, said that while the franchise is eager to see the 7-footer blossom this offseason, Orlando won’t rush him through the process. Weltman added that the presence of Bamba on the roster will have no bearing on the team’s approach to re-signing Vucevic this offseason.

``Mo had in a way a similar year to Jonathan (Isaac) in that he was injured much of the year and was unable to show what he could do,’’ Weltman said. ``But Mo’s timetable is Mo’s timetable, and I really believe that we’re going to look back on this injury with Mo and look at it as a blessing. I think that what Mo hasn’t been able to show anybody — what fans don’t see or the outside world (doesn’t see) — are all the gains that he’s made internally.

``We’ll allow that (progress) to unfold, as I always say, as it does,’’ Weltman added. ``That’s his timetable. And for us to throw out Mo (in a huge role) before he’s ready would be doing a disservice to him. I strongly believe that Mo will be an elite-level player in this league and that Mo has all the ingredients — the skills, the size, the intelligence, the desire — to put it all together. As I said, you can’t just say on draft night that we’re going to be patient. You have to actually bepatient. That doesn’t mean that there’s not an urgency for Mo to work hard and improve and get better, and he understands that. But that will happen as it happens.’’

Bamba happened to have one of his best games as a professional in his NBA debut, scoring 13 points, grabbing seven rebounds and swatting two shots in Orlando’s season-opening victory over the rival Miami Heat. However, Bamba’s big nights were only sporadic for the next few months ahead. He scored nine points and swatted four shots in the Magic’s victory over Utah and center Rudy Gobert, the player he’s been so often compared to with his expansive 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan. A breakthrough moment seemed to come on Jan. 2 in Chicago when Bamba scored 10 points and more importantly blocked three shots after Clifford strongly encouraged that he be more aggressive defensively in being a rim protector.

Those highs couldn’t mask the statistical data that showed that Orlando was a better-functioning team when he was off the floor. When Bamba was on the floor, the Magic scored only 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 108.3 points per 100 possessions. That net rating of minus-15.2 was the lowest for any Magic player – a number slightly skewed by the early-season struggles of Orlando’s second unit.

Bamba knows that he must improve – his skill, his strength and his conditioning – to avoid his second season looking like his first. And he wants to be ready if he’s asked to fill a much bigger role next season with the Magic having so much uncertainty at the center position because of the looming free agency.

``I definitely had my ups and downs,’’ said Bamba, who averaged 6.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and a team-best 1.36 blocks over 16.3 minutes in 47 games. ``There’s just so much to learn from and so much to grow from. I’m just really looking forward to next season and this summer.

``I’ve already put on a couple of pounds of weight, but a lot of it is just coming in terms of strength,’’ he added. ``I feel pretty good, but I’m nowhere near being the finished product that I will be.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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