Bamba Making Progress, Gaining Confidence Under Clifford's Tutelage

by John Denton

DALLAS – The inquisitive type who has an insatiable hunger to learn, Mo Bamba regularly communicates with other NBA rookies and peppers them with questions about their likes and dislikes with the situations they are in with their particular teams.

While many of those young players are getting more minutes, scoring more points or playing bigger roles in their first NBA seasons, the 7-foot Bamba has deducted this much from his rookie reconnaissance: He’s in a very good place with the Orlando Magic and no-nonsense head coach Steve Clifford.

``One thing that I love about this organization is nothing is handed to you. You’ve got to work for everything,’’ Bamba said following Orlando’s practice on Sunday. ``At first, I was foolish with my ways and thinking like, `I want to play, I want to play, I want to play.’ But there’s a reason for everything. There are things that I need to do better, and I need to get to a point where it’s hard to not have me on the court.’’

Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, has made strides in that direction by showing flashes of greatness throughout his first season. However, because he’s playing behind Orlando’s best player, Nikola Vucevic, Bamba’s chances have been sometimes limited and he’s been pushed to earn every minute he gets on the floor with demands of improving his energy level, his rebounding and his defense on pick-and-roll plays.

Bamba’s bright enough to realize that even though he’s not playing as much as some first-year players, he’s in an ideal spot with the Magic.

``I see (being held accountable) as motivation. Some guys will see it as, `aren’t you afraid to make a mistake now?’’’ Bamba said. ``But Coach (Clifford) really believes in me and you don’t get that a lot of places when you are a rookie, especially hearing a lot of different accounts from guys throughout the entire league. But Coach (Clifford) really believes in me and he really has a vision for me. It’s just up to me to follow it and do it.’’

One of the rookies from Bamba’s class, guard Luka Doncic, is certainly doing it this season for the surprising Dallas Mavericks. He had 11 consecutive points during a critical stretch of the fourth quarter on Saturday night to lead Dallas to a come-from-behind victory over the rival Houston Rockets.

On Monday night, Bamba and the Magic (12-14) face off against Doncic and the Mavs (13-11) for the first time this season. Clifford said he was blown away when watching Doncic take over late in Saturday’s game and he knows the Magic will have their work cut out in trying to slow down a young player who has looked like anything but that so far.

``He’s got high IQ, great size and when I’m watching him, he just looks like a really good basketball player,’’ said Clifford of Doncic, who has averaged 18.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 32.6 minutes a game. ``He’s got a feel for the game, decision-making (is good), great toughness and a great competitor. And he looks like he’s 27 with great maturity.’’

``Maturity’’ is a descriptor that Clifford often uses to describe Bamba, his 20-year-old rookie who has averaged 6.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.31 blocks in 26 games. The 7-footer broke out of a recent mini-slump with an 11-point, six-rebound, two-assist, one-block game against Denver by drilling all three of his 3-point shots. However, as is the case with most raw rookies, Bamba mostly struggled (four points, seven rebounds and zero-of-four from 3-point range) in Friday’s 112-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

Sequences like that, Clifford said, are why Magic fans need to temper their expectations and remain patient with the 221-pound Bamba.

``For him, he’s got so much talent, but people can forget that he’s (20) years old and it’s his first time doing four (games)-in-five nights and he’s playing against all great players on the floor,’’ Clifford said. ``All of these (rookie) guys, with AAU are used to playing against high-level talent, but not like this.’’

Clifford figures that Bamba will continue to rapidly improve because he rarely makes the same mistake and he studies ways to make himself better. Clifford pointed to Sunday’s practice and said that Bamba thrived in a drill where the Magic worked repeatedly on trying to stop pick-and-roll plays with point guards and centers. Vucevic, who slightly sprained his ankle on Friday, didn’t do the contact drills on Sunday as a precautionary measure, giving Bamba even more work in practice. (Vucevic is expected to be ready to play on Monday versus the Mavs in Dallas).

Clifford and Bamba talk often about the rookie’s progress and his areas of concern, sometimes in the head coach’s office in one-on-one film sessions. Often, those skull sessions are blunt and directly to the point – the style that Clifford often uses to ram home his point and one that Bamba said he prefers.

``It’s important to me to have good communication with him, but he’s easy because he’s very, very bright and he takes instruction well,’’ Clifford said. ``You don’t have to play (mind) games with him. He wants to know, `what did I do good?’ and `what do I need to work on?’ He’s actually a very low maintenance guy.’’

Clifford was asked earlier in the week about Bamba having to make the adjustment from the University of Texas where he played 30.2 minutes a night to the NBA where he is being used off the bench for 17 minutes a night. Not surprisingly, the coach took an old-school approach to the amount of playing time the rookie gets, stressing ``it has nothing to do with college; this ain’t college; it’s a million miles away from college.’’

And Clifford – who said he totally understood the position of a young player wanting more playing time – was just getting started making his point about players earning their time.

``The way it works for all young players is this – you want more minutes, play so good that I don’t want to take you out. That’s the way that works,’’ Clifford said. ``They’re going to get the minutes that they deserve and that’s the way the NBA works.

``If you’re getting 12 minutes and you want 20, play great in 12,’’ Clifford added. ``We’re trying to win and develop. To me, more young players get a skewed vision of where they are and it hurts their development because they get to play in a bunch of meaningless games with no intensity when they are young and there’s no expectations. … Bamba’s a worker, he’s diligent and he’s playing hard. These are all prideful guys and they all want to play more. But when you get your chance, play so good that nobody (coaching) wants to take you out. That’s how it works.’’

Bamba gets that completely and he wants Clifford holding him accountable on both ends of the floor. The center with the longest wingspan in NBA history (7 feet, 10 inches) made major strides in the months between college and the NBA Draft and he’s worked even harder on his game during the season to be a key cog for the Magic. He has ambitions of someday becoming one of the NBA’s most transformational centers, and he is confident that Clifford is the coach who can get him there.

``He holds me to a standard and he doesn’t hold back because I’m a rookie,’’ Bamba said. ``It’s the kind of coach/player relationship that’s necessary.’’

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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