PHILADELPHIA – Publicly, superstar Joel Embiid gave rookie Mohamed Bamba an infamous ``welcome to the (bleeping) league’’ moment this past summer when he drilled the young Orlando Magic center in the chest with a shoulder, dunked violently and trash-talked him all the way back up the court in a spirited pick-up game.
Privately, Embiid gave Bamba a completely different kind of welcome to the NBA, one in which the Philadelphia 76ers center shared his home and shared advice. Ultimately, the friendship formed proved to be an influential and lasting one for the 20-year-old Bamba.
Last spring, when the Sixers were facing the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs and Embiid had yet to be cleared after fracturing an orbital bone in his face, the center would work out with Bamba. After the first couple of playoff games, Embiid and Bamba would retreat to the former’s home to watch game film, talk basketball and life in the NBA. Ever the curious inquisitor, Bamba asked numerous questions, soaked in every drop of advice and marveled at how giving Embiid would be to someone just starting out in the NBA.
``He was a super generous dude, a very standup guy and someone you love to be around,’’ Bamba raved.
As fate would have it, Bamba’s professional debut could very well come against Embiid when the Magic (0-0) face the 76ers (1-0) on Monday night in preseason play in Philadelphia. Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, is expected to start at center, but Bamba – the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft – won’t be far behind, potentially allowing him to face up against the Philly all-star who he wants to pattern his game after.
The 7-foot Bamba, who has the longest wingspan ever recorded in NBA history at 7 feet, 10 inches, drilled with Embiid over and over this past summer and he’s tried to mimic much of the same footwork, plan of attack and killer instinct as the Philly big man.
``It’s amazing seeing someone as big as he is being as comfortable doing all kinds of different things,’’ Bamba said. ``That’s a small part of my game that I’m trying to expand on. Just having him as living, breathing model of what I kind of envision for myself is nice.’’
The Magic, under the direction of new head coach Steve Clifford, get to show off what kind of team they envision themselves being starting on Monday. (Tipoff is 7 p.m. and the game is being broadcast by NBA TV). Clifford, who is back with the organization after six years away, wants the Magic to be organized and aggressive and playing with the urgency of a regular-season game from the jump on Monday. He has introduced the team to his no-nonsense, no-excuses style of coaching in training camp and he is hopeful it shows up in the squad’s approach to the exhibition opener.
``To me, that’s the biggest thing – that we’re super-organized, we have a good purpose of play and we have good intensity,’’ said Clifford, a head coach previously with the Charlotte Hornets.
Clifford said he will likely limit players to 20-24 minutes in the game. The Magic practiced five times in the first four days of training camp before taking Saturday off. The squad was back on the practice floor on Sunday before flying to Philadelphia.
On Monday, the Magic get to face a different squad for the first time this preseason and veteran point guard D.J. Augustin said it’s never too early to start building the right habits.
``Like Coach (Clifford) said, he doesn’t care if we win or lose,’’ Augustin said, referring to the first preseason tilt. ``It’s just about being organized, playing hard and playing the right way. That’s all we’re looking to do, no matter the outcome. These games don’t count, but it counts for us, just learning each other and playing hard.’’
Orlando had an active offseason, hiring Clifford as head coach and surrounding him with 17 new staffers in the basketball operations department. The franchise selected Bamba and second-round forward Melvin Frazier Jr. in the NBA Draft and traded for point guard Jerian Grant and center Timofey Mozgov. Last, but certainly not least, the Magic inked forward Aaron Gordon to a long-term contract that should keep the team’s blossoming, young core in place. Another key piece of that core, Jonathan Isaac, played extremely well in the NBA Summer League, and should be a key cog of the team this season with his smothering defense.
Bamba could also be a centerpiece of the Magic’s defense in the coming weeks and months what with his expansive wing span, towering height and positional versatility. Because he has plus lateral quickness and the length to cover lots of ground, Clifford has experimented with playing the big man at power forward as well at center. He likes spending time at both positions because it challenges him to quickly adapt and it should help him shorten his NBA learning curve.
``It’s just about spreading the floor and being a trigger man a little more,’’ Bamba said of the team running the offense through him because of his passing skills from the high post. ``You get to be a trigger man at (center) but being a trigger man at (power forward) is a little different because you are more on the floor and you are moving around a lot more.’’
In addition to getting to see and face Embiid, Bamba will be making his NBA debut not too far from where he attended high school and first started to blossom as a basketball player. Despite being a native of Harlem in New York City, Bamba prepped at Westtown School (Pa.) some 30 miles to the west of Philadelphia.
With Embiid as a foe and Philadelphia as the backdrop, Bamba said all the familiarity will be comforting and he couldn’t be more excited about his debut.
``It’s going to be really cool and I’ll get to see a lot of familiar faces,’’ Bamba added, referring to being back in Philly. ``It’s not quite like New York, but it’s like a second home to me.’’
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