Bamba Focused On Quest For Greatness

by John Denton

ORLANDO – All of Mohamed Bamba’s tangible tools – that expansive 7-foot-10 wingspan, his towering height and the surprisingly soft shooting stroke – are enough alone to make the rookie center an enticing prospect.

But it’s intangibles such as Bamba’s hunger for greatness, his mature-beyond-his-years problem-solving approach, his sneaky competitiveness and a high basketball IQ that have the Orlando Magic convinced that the rookie center has a chance to someday be a special player.

Take, for example, the scene following the opening of Magic training camp on Tuesday at the Amway Center.

Mildly disappointed with how he performed in the first official practice of his NBA career, Bamba couldn’t wait to pour over the film and immediately define where corrections could be made. Bamba, 20, used that approach all throughout his high school playing days in Pennsylvania and while in college at the University of Texas, and it helped him make huge jumps as a player each season. Now, he wants to attack his rookie season the same way in hopes that it will help ease the transition to the NBA and allow him to quickly become a standout for the Magic.

``That’s part of the evolution of basketball and part of the evolution of being a good player, reflecting on how you are playing,’’ Bamba said of wanting to study ways he can be better. ``I’ve watched some NBA game film of myself in Summer League, but that doesn’t quite do it. Now, I have some really raw film of practice and I can use that to try and get better. The challenge this year will be not waiting until the second half of the season and instead capitalizing on things early and often. There’s no reason to wait.’’

That has to be music to the ears of a Magic franchise that is downright giddy about having the 7-foot Bamba on its roster. Orlando used the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft on Bamba, feeling he has all the necessary tools – both tangible and intangible – to someday become a transformational player in the NBA. President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and head coach Steve Clifford stressed on Tuesday – the first day of training camp for the Magic – that the franchise will do what it can to temper expectations and slowly develop their promising big man. Weltman, who made the final call on the drafting of Bamba, said the center’s recent track record at the University of Texas shows just how focused he is on becoming a great player.

``As we always talk about, Mo will be brought along at the right pace and Mo will play what he earns,’’ Weltman said. ``We’re very high on Mo and we’re very much of the mind that he will be a problem solver because he’s a smart kid and a smart player.’’

Weltman went on to point to Bamba’s one season at Texas as proof of that. In the freshman’s first 10 games on campus, he shot 47.5 percent from the floor and averaged just 10.3 points for the Longhorns. However, after evaluating his play on a daily basis and working to steadily improve, Bamba shot a stellar 56.9 percent from the floor over his final 31 games while averaging 13.5 points. While Bamba’s quip was funnier – ``I just started dunking the ball more’’ – Weltman was more analytical.

Said Weltman: ``Here’s a guy with the skill set, the hunger and the wherewithal with what it takes to improve.’’

Bamba said the magnitude of Tuesday’s first practice hit him on Monday as he was going through the first Media Day of his pro career. ``It’s hit me that this thing is actually finally getting underway,’’ but he noted that he was calm and at ease in Tuesday’s practice.

``I don’t know why, but I don’t really get too nervous before games or practices or whatever,’’ he said. ``It probably hit me after the first morning workout before the practice that this is the grind. This is what the great ones talk about.’’

Since leaving Texas, Bamba has wholeheartedly embraced that grind, working first with famed trainer Drew Hanlen in Southern California in the spring and with the Magic’s coaching staff after getting drafted. Bamba said at one point earlier in the summer that when he goes back and watches his games at Texas that he looked ``lost’’ out on the floor. He has since noted that because his skill level has improved and his overall plan of attack on the offensive end of the floor is sounder, he is now ``night and day’’ different as a player.

``I’m just more comfortable out there. I’d say my outside shot has made the biggest strides, but my mid- and low-post moves have gotten better,’’ he noted. ``I’m getting to my hooks, my counters and my counter-counters a lot. … Obviously, it’s night and day with my jump shot, but it’s also my comfort on the floor.’’

Something else that has to be comforting to Bamba is that he has a big supporter in incumbent center Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic. Vucevic was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers seven years ago and he has always said that the mentorship provided to him by veterans Andre Iguodala, Tony Battie and Spencer Hawes proved invaluable and he wants to do the same thing for a blossoming talent such as Bamba.

``He teaches me things literally every time that I step on the court,’’ Bamba said of the helpful tips he has received from Orlando’s long-time big man. ``(Vucevic will say), `you want to have your shoulders square like this instead of like this, so that way you can see the ball’ and `don’t let the guy drop below you (on pick-and-roll plays)’ and `when you’re shooting, stay shot-ready.’ It’s small things that I’ve heard before, but it sounds good coming from somebody like Vooch who is an accomplished vet.’’

Clifford, Orlando’s new head coach, has mentioned that he wants to experiment with playing Bamba and Vucevic together at times this season to get the team’s best players on the floor more. The belief is that it can work because both big men possess 3-point shooting range. Another big factor is Bamba’s positional versatility when it comes to the defensive end of the floor.

``I’m going to be a guy who can defend a bunch of different positions,’’ Bamba said confidently, knowing that he likely can rely on a wingspan that is the longest ever recorded in NBA history. ``Coach (Clifford) really does believe that myself and Vooch will be on the floor at the same time, so I’ve got to be able to defend (power forwards) and, at times, even (small forwards). It’s just about me having that inside presence and defensively being an anchor, and offensively coach is going to play a lot through me.’’

Clifford is quick to caution that Bamba is still an incredibly raw player who lacks bulk and NBA experience. While he is of the belief that Bamba can someday be an elite big man, he knows it would be foolish to lean too heavily on the rookie right away. He is hopeful that a Magic fanbase hungry for success will be patient as well.

``I thought he did a good job (in the first practice). He got fatigued, but he did a really good job,’’ Clifford said.

``He’s smart, but again, I hope people are fair with him and he’s a young guy. It’s going to take him some time and learn.’’

Bamba gets all of that, but he wants to do everything in his power to try and shorten that learning curve so that he can potentially help the Magic be successful this season. Little things, such as going back and really studying game and practice film on a daily basis, should help him maximize the physical tools he possesses, he said. That’s an analytical strategy that’s paid big dividends for him in the past and he hopes it works again at the NBA level.

``Honestly, I haven’t been in this position before in the NBA, but I’ve been this position before in high school basketball when I first got to Westtown (Pa.) and I didn’t think that I was going to start,’’ Bamba recalled. ``I was just like, `I’m going to work in silence and continue to do what coach asks me to do.’ And before you knew it, I’d figured out how to do all of the things expected of me.

``I guess we’ll find out,’’ Bamba added later, when asked how ready he thought he was for the NBA. ``Probably the physicality will be the toughest part, but after I get a few games and get time under my belt I’ll figure out ways to combat that.’’

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.