ORLANDO - Like many people quarantined to their homes and unable to stick to their regular exercise plans for several months, Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba packed on the pounds during his unexpected time off from March to June.
The major difference, however, is that Bamba’s added weight was very much by design and a concerted effort to make him a stronger player in the post while doing battle with other behemoth NBA centers. And whereas ``the COVID-19’’ often playfully refers to other’s amount of unwanted flab added during the worldwide pandemic, Bamba believes – and body-fat index tests confirm – that much of the 21 pounds he packed on over the past four months is lean muscle.
For a formerly spindly, rail-thin 7-footer who has had trouble adding weight most of his life, Bamba needed to dedicate himself fully to the project of bulking up. Whereas his original goal was to get from 231 pounds to 240 pounds, Bamba changed that goal to 250 pounds and got as high as 258 before settling in at 252 after restarting full-court basketball drills.
``It was something that I had to work at every single day, and I had to make myself uncomfortable,’’ said Bamba, who hopes to keep lifting and eating enough to try and keep his weight slightly higher than 250 pounds during the grind of the NBA season. ``I had to wake up a few times at 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning just to get some extra calories and an extra fill. I had to wake up early to get that extra, big breakfast. It was definitely uncomfortable at first, but as I got used to it, it definitely got a lot easier.’’
Bamba, the No. 6 pick of the 2018 NBA Draft who is in the midst of his second season, is hoping that the added bulk will help him earn added minutes and be more effective for the Magic going forward. Orlando practiced on Monday for a fifth straight day and continued to prepare for its three exhibition games and, ultimately, the eight ``seeding games’’ that will begin on Aug. 31 for the Magic.
The Magic will face the Clippers (July 22, 3 p.m.), Lakers (July 25, noon) and Nuggets (July 27, noon) in sequestered scrimmages at Disney in hopes of ramping up for the restart opener against the injury-and-illness-ravaged Brooklyn Nets (July 31, 2:30 p.m.). Brooklyn (30-34) is just a half-game ahead of Orlando (30-35) for the seventh-seed in the Eastern Conference. The Magic are already 2-0 this season against the Nets and can secure the first tiebreaker over the Nets with a win on July 31.
On Monday, Magic head coach Steve Clifford raved about the progress that his team has made through five days of work outs. The Magic, who arrived at Disney last Tuesday and began practicing on Thursday following a mandatory 48-hour period in quarantine, have spent five sessions on the floor doing scrimmaging and skill work and five nightly walk-through sessions in the ballroom of their hotel focusing on mostly defensive alignments.
``I think we’re farther along than I thought we would be, and I think their attitude and approach have been terrific,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic will use Tuesday as a rest day before starting another five-day stretch of practices. ``It’s different (practicing following a long layoff), but in terms of our guys’ attitude, effort and the way that they have practiced, I couldn’t be happier.’’
Bamba, 22, hopes to be a big part of the Magic’s push toward a second straight playoff berth for the Magic when the NBA season restarts. After seeing his rookie year cut short by a stress reaction in his left foot in the 2018-19 season, Bamba made noticeable strides prior to the stoppage in play in terms of playing with more aggression offensively and battling better on the defensive end in the post. Over 60 games prior to the stoppage in play, Bamba averaged 5.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 14.5 minutes per night behind starting center Nikola Vucevic.
Bamba scored a career-high 15 points twice earlier this season – Nov. 25 at Cleveland and Feb. 26 at Atlanta – making five of five 3-point shots against the Cavs and three of four 3-pointers versus the Hawks. For the season, the sweet-shooting Bamba has connected on 46.8 percent of his tries overall and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.
Not satisfied with production that he thinks can grow dramatically in the coming years, Bamba looked to make some major personal improvements during his time away from basketball. Establishing a daily routine and hiring a personal chef to dramatically change his eating habits, Bamba said, were two of the biggest keys to making progress in terms of building strength and adding bulk.
``My entire mentality the whole time that we were quarantined was, `Gain an inch every day,’’’ Bamba said via a Zoom call with media. ``So, literally, it took every day of going through it to get where I am. It took changing my diet, intense workouts and leaning onto the Magic Strength and Conditioning staff to provide a plan for me.
``I didn’t have anything to do at home and they brought in, literally, half the weight room, and I didn’t have anything else to do but to lift,’’ said Bamba, who brought a stationary cardio bicycle with him to Disney to work out between Magic practice sessions. ``I got a chef early on, like midway through March, and since then I’ve been eating like five-to-six meals a day and lifting for an hour or an hour-and-a-half.’’
Magic center Khem Birch, who has taken turns handling the backup center position the past two seasons while Bamba has battled occasional foot injuries, notices a difference already in the strength left of the formerly skinny big man.
``I think he outweighs me by like 30 pounds right now; last year, I think I outweighed him and now he outweighs me, so he’s definitely stronger out there,’’ said the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Birch. ``He’s bigger and he’s able to maintain his strength, but also have that athleticism.’’
Bamba, who has one of the longest wingspans in NBA history at 7 feet, 10 inches, agreed that he’s been able to maintain the nimbleness that made him something of a unique player because of his massive length and agility.
If the added weight helps Bamba become a better defender – both in the post and when moving laterally on screen-and-roll plays – it could create a scenario where Clifford uses both him and Vucevic on the floor together at the same time. Such an experiment just might give the Magic a lethal dynamic because both Vucevic and Bamba shoot the ball well from the perimeter. However, those lineups failed miserably last season when Bamba was an NBA rookie and clearly a much different physical specimen in terms of strength, bulk and confidence. Now, he clearly isn’t lacking in anything in those areas.
``I feel as mobile as before, but it definitely took some extra work,’’ Bamba stressed. ``Gaining 20-something pounds is no joke and you really feel it on your joints, but I had to get into the mentality of, `I’m going to have to run at this weight, I’m going to have to jump at this weight and I’m going to have to move laterally at this weight’ to feel good about it. So, I truly feel good at this weight now.’’
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