ORLANDO – The holidays are a time to spend with family and that’s just what Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba and Toronto Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard did on Monday prior to facing off on the basketball court on Tuesday.
The two of them aren’t biologically related and thus not officially family members, but they might as well be considering the bond that they have shared over the past seven years and how Leonard was there to assist Bamba during a time of need back in 2015.
Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft and the Magic’s prized rookie center, got to know Leonard through his older half-brother, Sidiki Johnson, who was once a top-100 college recruit before washing out of basketball. Leonard, an NBA champion in 2014 and the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and ’16, took a liking to the much younger Bamba when they first met some seven years ago, and he said he snickered at the bravado of Bamba’s bold predictions back in the day.
``He made it to the NBA. We all had high hopes for him and I remember him saying that he was going to get here (to the NBA),’’ recalled Leonard after his Raptors beat the Magic in dramatic fashion on Tuesday night. ``I’m really proud of him for making it (to the NBA) and being a top-10 pick. He looks comfortable and looks like he belongs here. He’s playing with confidence, shooting the ball well and doing a good job of helping on the weak side of the defense by blocking shots. He’s doing really good.’’
The 7-foot Bamba is doing quite well for the Magic (9-9), serving as a key rotational cog on a team that came into Tuesday having won three games in a row and seven of the last nine. On Tuesday, Bamba gave the Magic seven points, five rebounds, a thunderous third-quarter dunk and what Orlando head coach Steve Clifford called some of the rookie’s best post defense of the season against the more physical Jonas Valanciunas.
None of it might have been possible without the mentorship of Leonard for the young and impressionable Bamba years ago. In 2015, when Bamba was rising as a top high school basketball prospect, Johnson – the older, half-brother – was convicted on charges of second-degree and third-degree armed robbery and given a four-year prison sentence in New York. Bamba, who grew up in Harlem but attended prep schools in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, was understandably rocked by the event, but said he luckily had Leonard there for support.
``After my brother went away for a while, Kawhi reached out to me. He just kind of stepped up and played the big brother role for me,’’ Bamba said recently. ``He’s always been a family friend for us.’’
Considering Bamba’s chosen profession as an NBA player, having a mentor as accomplished as Leonard has been a boon. Following an All-American college career at San Diego State, Leonard was a first-round draft pick in 2011 and he proceeded to become one of the NBA’s most dynamic two-way players. In addition to being the Finals MVP of San Antonio’s 2014 NBA championship team, Leonard has been on the NBA’s All-Defensive team four times, he’s been first-team All-NBA twice, he’s been an all-star two times and he’s emerged as a perennial MVP candidate.
Bamba, a potentially game-changing shot-blocker, would be wise to study Leonard’s dynamic defensive talents. The 6-foot-8 Leonard has evolved into one of the best wing defenders in NBA history, so much so that he incredibly has more career steals (746) than he does fouls (725) over his eight-year NBA career.
Among the many things that makes Leonard an elite defender, his famously large hands play a major role in his success. With hands that measure 9.75 inches in length and 11.25 inches in width – to put that into perspective, the average male’s hands are 7.44 inches – Leonard rarely goes into a pile without coming up with the basketball and he often he makes the orangish sphere resemble a tangerine in his massive hands.
Bamba has a unique gift of his own with an expansive wingspan of 7 feet, 10 inches. That’s the largest wingspan ever measured at the NBA Pre-Draft Combine and he has used that enormous reach to average 6.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.39 blocks in 18 games with the Magic this season.
That’s nothing, Bamba said, when compared to those massive hands and skills of Leonard.
``His hands are way bigger than mine,’’ Bamba marveled. ``I just love how multi-dimensional he is and how he is so driven offensively and defensively.’’
Fate brought the two friends close together last year as Bamba picked the University of Texas following a recruiting battle for his basketball services. With Leonard playing two hours away in San Antonio, Bamba made the two-hour drive south from Austin, Texas to see the All-NBA forward play a couple of times last fall.
Leonard, 27, was the focal point of controversy much of last season as he only played sparingly for the Spurs because of a quad injury. He requested a trade over the summer and got his wish when San Antonio shipped him and Danny Green to Toronto in a deal centered around DeMar DeRozan. Despite playing just nine games last season because of the injury and the turmoil, Leonard hasn’t missed a beat this season while averaging 24.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals a game for the East-leading Raptors.
``Just really the weather,’’ Leonard dead-panned when asked about the biggest difference between playing in San Antonio and Toronto. ``As far as basketball, (the Raptors) made it easy for me to transition in. And we’re winning, so that probably makes it a lot easier for me as well. That’s about it.’’
While Leonard is infamously camera shy and tends to shun the spotlight, he often opens up around Bamba. Most importantly, Leonard has been more than willing to share advice about life and basketball to the 20-year-old Bamba during their quiet times alone.
``He doesn’t really like the mainstream attention, but he’s a really cool dude,’’ Bamba said of Leonard’s mild-mannered demeanor. ``Every now and then, he’ll check up on me and see how I am doing.
``He’s a guy who has always kind of been there for me,’’ Bamba continued. ``I’ve just picked his brain about basketball and everything and he always told me that he was there to help if I ever needed anything. That was just kind of the relationship that we’ve always had.’’
Added Leonard, who had 18 points and eight rebounds in Toronto’s defeat of Orlando on Tuesday: ``Really, I’ve just tried to help him with whatever questions he has, and I try to give him my advice and tell him about how I’ve been through the same things. Then, I just let him pick his own path.’’
When Bamba and Leonard met up in Orlando on Monday, they talked about spending time next summer for some basketball work in San Diego. Bamba spent much of his time last spring prior to the NBA Draft training in suburban Los Angeles, while Leonard usually prefers to work on his craft at his alma mater of San Diego State.
Again, they’re not officially family, but they sure do act like it and glowingly talk about one another like they are blood-related brothers. When they invariably get together next month when the Raptors are back in Orlando, later this season when the Magic are in Toronto and next summer for basketball drills, it will be viewed by Bamba and Leonard as family spending time with one another and doing whatever they can to assist.
``I was planning on spending a portion of last summer with him, but pre-draft (workouts) were crazy,’’ Bamba said. ``We’ve already talked a little about training together in San Diego. Spending a couple of weeks or a few days with him, I think it would be great for me.’’
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