ORLANDO – When Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba meets with head coach Steve Clifford for intensive, one-on-one film sessions – as they did on Sunday and Wednesday when the rest of the team was off – they often discuss growth not only in terms of offense and defense, but also as it relates to momentum.
Practically everything being thrown at the 7-foot, 221-pound NBA rookie is new these days – whether it’s playing more at the power forward position, tackling taxing stretches in the schedule such as the eight games in 13 nights dead ahead or being asked to close out games in crunch-time situations. Clifford, for one, couldn’t be happier with how the 20-year-old Bamba has handled it all and has shown steady improvement along the way.
Now, following Tuesday’s seven-point, seven-rebound, five-block performance and what the coach called Bamba’s ``best practice’’ of the young season on Wednesday, Clifford sees the rookie building positive momentum toward being even more productive. Slowly, but surely, Bamba is starting to string together the kinds of performances that have the Magic convinced more than ever that his future is an extremely bright one.
``Everything we do is new for him, but I love his attitude,’’ Clifford said with conviction. ``(Thursday), for me, was his best practice. He’s very bright, he wants to do well and he’s figuring out how he has to play to play well.
``I’m going to say this: He’s so smart and he’s really working, and two months from now – he’s playing fine now, too – but (in two months) he’ll be a much, much better player,’’ the veteran coach added.
That’s great news for the Magic (2-5) as they head into Friday’s home game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Since its solid 2-2 start that included an impressive road win in Boston, Orlando has dropped its last three games and badly wants to get back on track on against a Clippers team that will be coming off a difficult game on Thursday in Philadelphia.
Having another dynamic two-way player such as Bamba growing more and more comfortable can only help the Magic’s bid for major improvements this season. He knows now the challenge is to follow up Tuesday’s strong performance and Thursday’s solid practice with another all-around effort. After impressively racking up 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in Orlando’s season-opening defeat of Miami, Bamba offered very little two nights later in a loss to Charlotte. Now, he wants to follow up a game in which he had a career-high five shot swats with some legitimate and lasting momentum.
``That (Tuesday performance) was one of my best games of the season and I don’t think I even scored (much) at all. I think I had some of the best offensive energy and if I can get going like that, it will show in all kinds of areas,’’ Bamba said. ``This league is all about consistency and what you can do on a nightly basis. I’m trying to learn as much as I can in practice and treat them like dress rehearsals (for the games) to let Coach (Clifford) know he can rely on me.’’
Orlando took Bamba – owner of the longest-recorded wingspan in NBA history (7 feet, 10 inches) – with the No. 6 pick last June, feeling that he has the skill set and smarts to be a transformational player on both ends of the floor. While he hasn’t necessarily had the singular success of fellow draftees DeAndre Ayton (16.9 ppg.), Marvin Bagley III (12.3 ppg.), Trae Young (19.1 pppg.), Jaren Jackson Jr. (11.5 ppg.) or Luka Doncic (19.6 ppg.), he’s done nothing to show the Magic that he can’t someday dominate with his unique talents.
Clifford and the Magic front office have purposefully brought Bamba along slowly as he’s worked to grow his rail-thin body and his game against NBA competition. Through seven games, he’s playing just 20 minutes a night while averaging 5.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots. Tuesday night against Sacramento proved to be a bit of a departure from his normal rotation as Bamba played 10 minutes of the final period (and 24 minutes total) and gave the Magic four rebounds, two blocks and several more defensive contests where he played a major role.
``I kept looking over to the (scorer’s) table and (thinking), `Wow, that sub’s not for me, so let’s keep it rolling,’’’ Bamba said with a playful chuckle. ``It felt good that Coach (Clifford) had that faith in me to keep me in, late game. I wish we could have capitalized and pulled that one out, but like I said, there’s always something to build off of and learn about.’’
Said Clifford of the added responsibility given to Bamba late in Tuesday’s game: ``It was his best game, by far – even better than the opening Miami game. In that fourth quarter, he shut down the lane both as a help defender and a primary defender. He was really good.’’
Magic veterans Nikola Vucevic and DJ Augustin have done what they can to help Bamba with his transition to the NBA. He earned their respect almost immediately with his diligent work ethic on the practice floor and in the weight room. And because of his inquisitive nature, Bamba usually has questions for the Magic’s veteran players following drills in practice or games.
Augustin thinks another of Bamba’s talents – his high IQ – will eventually pay big dividends for him and the Magic.
``He’s definitely skilled, he has the size and he’s athletic, but with his mindset and his IQ that’s just going to help him push forward faster than a lot of rookies,’’ said Augustin, who like Bamba attended the University of Texas prior to playing in the NBA. ``He doesn’t make the same mistakes twice, he wants to learn and he gets better every day.’’
Bamba said his biggest adjustment thus far has been trying to figure out ways to be effective while playing more power forward – a position switch for him instituted by Clifford to get him more minutes alongside Vucevic. Bamba feels that his rebounding and blocked shot numbers could be even better if he were not out on the perimeter checking 3-point shooting forwards, but he is happy to fill whatever role the team needs from him.
Another eye-opening thing about the NBA for Bamba: The fearlessness that guards and forwards have while attacking him at the rim. Whether it’s been Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving or Giannis Antetokounmpo, they haven’t shied away from him the way some players did in college when he patrolled the paint with his towering wingspan.
Cracked Bamba: ``Shot-blocking and timing (have been different in the NBA) because guys can really finish around the basket. I’m just going to have to bring a different type of energy to be more of a presence.’’
Much the same way that he talks to teammates about ways that he can improve, Bamba regularly communicates with veterans and fellow rookies in the NBA in hopes that he can learn from their experiences as well. He admitted that prior to the season he talked to former Magic center Dwight Howard about his time in Orlando and just this week he chatted with Atlanta’s Young, telling him, ``I’m pulling for you.’’
All of it, Bamba stressed, is to quench his thirst for basketball knowledge so that he can make steady improvements as this first NBA season progresses. Again, he wants to keep building momentum so that he can grow as a dependable and dominant player for the Magic.
``It’s just a matter of making a mistake and trying to capitalize off of it so that I don’t make the same mistake again,’’ he said. ``That way, if I’m not making the same mistakes, Coach (Clifford) will know he can rely on me. … I already feel that I’m better than Week 1. There’s just always something to build on and add to.’’
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