LAS VEGAS – Hundreds of miles away from the nearest NBA arena and theoretically a million miles from NBA fame, Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba looked around at his somewhat spartan surroundings on the campus of UNLV on Tuesday and still managed to unleash a wide, toothy smile.
For Bamba, the venue didn’t matter nearly as much as his activity did. Simply being full-go in a Magic practice session again – something he hadn’t been able to do since early February because of a left leg injury – brought tremendous joy to the bulked-up, 7-footer.
``You can’t understand how much (he missed basketball),’’ Bamba said following his first workout with the Magic’s Summer League squad. ``There were a bunch of different points out there (during Tuesday’s practice) where I found myself just smiling because I’m back in the swing of things.’’
Bamba, the No. 6 pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, is back in the swing of things after missing much of the past five months after suffering a stress fracture in his left tibia. Because he alertly notified Orlando’s medical staff of the pain in his lower leg prior to a Feb. 2 home game against the Brooklyn Nets, Bamba was able to avoid serious injury and his leg was treated with an injection procedure.
Still, Bamba had to miss the final 30 games of his rookie season and the Magic’s stirring run to the first playoff berth since 2012. He did his best to stay engaged with the team during his time out of action, filing regular scouting reports with head coach Steve Clifford and assistant coach Mike Batiste and continuing to travel with the team.
Still, the 21-year-old Bamba missed the thrill of competition and the challenge of improving himself against the best basketball players in the world. Instead, he’s looked to use those pangs of regret to fuel offseason workouts that have put him in a position to compete in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League 2019. It’s uncertain just how much he will play – or even appear at all when the Magic face the Spurs (July 5, 11 p.m. ET, NBA TV), Nuggets (July 7, 6 p.m. ET, NBA TV), Heat (July 9, 4 p.m., ESPN 2) and Nets (July 10, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN U) – but Bamba is happy just being healthy and back in a position to compete again.
``I was away from it, but I didn’t allow myself to be mentally disengaged from it,’’ Bamba said of dealing with his time away from basketball. ``I tried to be the team guy and be around as much as possible, so it still felt like I was out there one way or another.
``The goal of this whole thing now (in Summer League) is to just get better,’’ he added. ``It’s not a matter of putting up the best stats possible; it’s just to get better, learn and really, really buy into what all of our coaching staff is preaching and be the best version of myself.’’
Much has changed in the year since Bamba was last in Las Vegas making his NBA debut as a talented, but raw center thought to be something of a project because of his limited offensive skills and frail frame. Most noticeable now about the towering 7-footer with the 7-foot, 10-inch wing span is the definition that he has added to his shoulders, biceps and legs. Much of his time away from basketball was spent in the weight room at the Magic’s headquarters trying to become stronger and put on bulk that will help him in wrestling other 7-footers in the paint.
Already, in informal workouts and in one summer league practice, Bamba has noticed the benefits of adding approximately 20 pounds that has taken his weight to more than 240 pounds.
``One thing that I was, not worried about, but was conscious about was, `How am I going to be able to move 20 pounds heavier?’ I think it’s pretty good and I’m doing pretty well,’’ Bamba surmised. ``I’m roughly 240 (pounds) now and honestly it feels good to play at this weight because your bumps are more (effective) and you’re getting to spots easier. Trust me, there’s still a ways to go, but it feels good.’’
Bamba has been so serious and dedicated to growing his game and improving his body that he hasn’t allowed summer travel to slow his workouts. During a recent promotional trip to China with Under Armour, Bamba took Magic Performance and Rehabilitation coach Nathan Spencer along with him so that he didn’t miss out on any workout sessions. He playfully said prior to the offseason that he would turn himself into ``Swole Bamba’’ with his workouts and as it has turned out, Bamba has had do a bit of extra shopping to adapt to his growing body.
``I can’t fit the same jeans as last year because it’s a little tight. But (his previously injured left leg) feels good,’’ Bamba said of the growth in his previously scrawny legs. ``A lot of post work comes from your trunk and your lower body, so it just feels good to be able to hold your own (on the low block).
``This whole summer has been work, work, work,’’ he added. ``I’ve been in the weight room and on the court basically every day that I’ve been in Orlando and it’s really showing.’’
Bamba showed tremendous flashes of potential as a rookie, averaging 6.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.36 blocks in 16.3 minutes per night over 47 games. He 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 wingspan. A breakthrough moment seemed to come on Jan. 2 in Chicago when Bamba scored 10 points and more importantly blocked three shots after head coach Steve Clifford strongly encouraged that he be more aggressive defensively in being a rim protector.
In the days leading up to the start of drills for the NBA Summer League, Clifford and the Magic’s Summer League coach, Pat Delany, talked to Bamba about focusing on playing with more vigor and energy on both ends of the floor. Too often last season, Bamba’s lack of strength of declining conditioning took a toll on his production. Those areas, Delany said, are points of emphasis this week for the center.
``It’s a stepping stone, really, because it’s been like (five) months since he’s played organized, five-on-five, but he’s been doing a ton of work, he’s in a good place and you can kind of see that he knows the talk and what we’re doing and he’s already ahead of the curve,’’ Delany said. ``Overall, his energy level is much better than it had been. We haven’t seen him in live action in quite a while, but there were some contact rebounds and traffic rebounds that he made today and that will get better and better the more he plays. He’ll just keep going from here.’’
Bamba reiterated on Tuesday that he was extremely pleased that the Magic were reportedly able to retain center Nikola Vucevic in free agency – even though it likely means the second-year center will be in a reserve role once again. (NBA teams and players aren’t allowed to officially consummate contracts until July 6). Bamba regularly credited Vucevic with helping give him advice all throughout his rookie season, and he stressed that he was eager to learn from a player with so much versatility and skill to his game.
``It was awesome,’’ Bamba said of the reports that Vucevic will return to the Magic. ``He was a lot of the reason why we made the playoffs and it was just exciting to have something like that on the roster.
``I just think it’s what’s best for the team,’’ Bamba said of Vucevic being back with the Magic. ``As I said before, (Vucevic) was our guy last year, he was an all-star and why we were in the playoffs. But I’m just going to keep working and it’s not going to stop me from working on my game and being the best version of myself.’’
That version of Bamba should be one more mature – both mentally and physically – and one better equipped to play in the post in the season ahead.
``Just overall, pace of play and low and mid-post stuff,’’ Bamba said of the areas where he has made the most improvement so far. ``My pace of getting the ball, taking my time and really assessing what the defense is giving me and (understanding) what I want (for a shot) – that’s the kind of stuff that we work on every day, a lot of pick-and-roll stuff and making different reads. I’m definitely seeing it coming to fruition now.’’
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