ORLANDO – What if Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba, in their dual pursuit of minutes and a starting role at the center position, actually become a formidable one-two punch for the Orlando Magic instead of heated competitors locked into an either-or battle?
They are, after all, teammates with a budding friendship and a shared desire to help the Magic win big this season. Of course, both are fiery competitors who want to start games, be on the floor at crunch time and make the plays that will lift the Magic to new heights this season.
But, what if, as new Magic coach Steve Clifford has asked repeatedly already, Vucevic and Bamba are both used – sometimes simultaneously in an ultra-big lineup – for the betterment of an Orlando team on nights when it needs more offense or more defense? Vucevic, the incumbent at center and the longest-tenured player on the Magic, is a highly skilled offensive player who sometimes struggles defensively in pick-and-roll coverages and isn’t particularly fearsome at the rim. Meanwhile, Bamba – the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft – comes to the NBA as a raw offensive player, but someone who should be an elite defender right away with a wingspan (7 feet, 10 inches) that is the longest in league history.
How the Magic balance the use of Vucevic and Bamba could go a long way toward deciding the fate of their season. Clearly, they need Vucevic’s offensive production and veteran leadership on the floor, but Bamba also offers some much-needed length and athleticism on the defensive end and he will need major minutes to develop as a player.
What to do? Clifford recently revealed his early-season plans – which undoubtedly could change as the season progresses if one outplays the other by a wide margin.
``(Media and fans) say competition, but I don’t think they look at it like that at all because we’re trying to build a team here,’’ Clifford said. ``Vooch is going to start and is one of the more respected centers in the NBA. Mo’s a young guy trying to learn the NBA game and it’s a totally different scenario (with the two players). They’re both going to play a lot and Mo’s going to have a big role.’’
Splitting time at the center position doesn’t seem to be an issue for now with the two big men, although it’s certainly understood that they both want to play as many minutes as possible. Vucevic, who is headed into his seventh season with the Magic and his eighth NBA campaign, is in the final year of his contract and undoubtedly wants to post a host of solid numbers that lead to winning. Meanwhile, Bamba still silently seethes about a perceived drop in the draft and he’s eager to show off what he feels will be a transformational set of skills at the center position that he’s worked all offseason to hone.
Regardless his role, Bamba vowed that he will remain patient and continue to work as he adjusts to the NBA game. That’s a plan that worked well for him while in high school and college.
``Honestly, I haven’t been in this position before in the NBA, but I’ve been in this position in high school basketball and when I first got to Westtown (Pa.) I didn’t think I was even going to start,’’ Bamba recalled. ``I was like, `I’m just going work in silence and do what coach asks me to do.’ Before long (he figured), I’d be doing all of the things that are expected of me.’’
Vucevic, who will turn 28 in less than a month, is coming off a season in which he averaged 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and a career-best 3.4 assists per game. It was the sixth straight season that he’s led the Magic in rebounding, but also a sixth straight season the franchise has missed the playoffs. He’s never groused about the team’s lack of success, insisting all along that he wants to stay in Orlando and be a part of the turnaround toward the playoffs. A long-time fan of professional soccer, Vucevic has always admired players who have been true to their teams and he is hopeful that he can follow a similar path.
``I’ve said many times before that I take a lot of pride in being loyal to this franchise and being here as long as I have,’’ he insisted. ``I know we’ve had some rough times and I was put in some rough situations, but I stayed through all of that and never asked to leave or anything. I admire the guys who are able to stay with one franchise for a long, long time and it’s rare nowadays with a lot of trades. But, I like being here, I want to be here and I want to have success here.’’
Clifford, who coached previously with the Charlotte Hornets for five years, has long been a fan of Vucevic’s game from afar and has grown to admire the 7-footer even more now that he’s coaching him. Though the Magic have struggled to find success and Vucevic is a mostly mild-mannered player, the 7-footer is widely respected throughout the NBA and in his own locker room, Clifford said.
``If you ask guys in the NBA about Orlando, with most of them, the first guy they are going to talk about is Vucevic,’’ Clifford said. ``Coaching against him, ever since I have been (in the NBA), you have to figure out how to take him away. There’s not many guys like him. I’m not sure if some people aren’t underselling how respected a player he is and how valuable he is to our team.
``When you meet with the (Magic) players, (Vucevic) is the one that they all want to be on the floor with,’’ Clifford added. ``It doesn’t matter which guys you talk about, but they all want to play with him because his decision-making. He’s just a very good player.’’
In addition to being a very good basketball player, Vucevic is also a very good leader – something that longtime teammates have professed for years. Whereas Vucevic could have been upset about the Magic drafting a center who could someday replace him, he has been an active participant in trying to assist Bamba with his transition to the NBA. That’s something that veterans Andre Iguodala, Tony Battie and Spencer Hawes did for Vucevic when he was a rookie for the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2012, and he wanted to return the favor to the Magic’s 20-year-old rookie.
``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.’’
Added Vucevic: ``He’s my teammate and I’m obviously going to help him and he’s a really good person. He’s willing to listen and willing to learn and when you see something like that I’m obviously willing to help. I could have gotten upset, but I didn’t see a purpose in to doing that. I know my value and how valuable I am to this team and I know what I’ve done throughout my career. I’ve never had any reasons to think (Bamba’s addition) was going to affect me in any way. I’m going to do my job to the best of my ability and help Mo. He’s obviously a great talent and if he can help our team, I want to help him as well.’’
Vucevic played at least 30 minutes a game in each of his first four seasons with the Magic, but that total fell each of the past two seasons. In an ill-fated 2016-17 experiment, he was asked to share the big-man rotation with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka – two players who have since been traded. Last season, Vucevic missed a major chunk of time because of a fractured bone in his hand and he split minutes with Biyombo. Undoubtedly, he will split time this season with Bamba, who got rave reviews from Clifford earlier this week following a particularly impressive practice.
``I’m just really pleased, and he’s been really good at everything,’’ Clifford said of Bamba, who had added some noticeable muscle to his frame this offseason following a summer working in the Magic’s weight room. ``Summer League was tough for him because physically he wasn’t ready to play many minutes. And the one game – I think it was the Phoenix game where there were more quality players on the floor – he got frustrated because he wanted to play, but he wasn’t in a place physically to do that. But he came right back here (for summer work) and he’s done a good job.
``I don’t know much about strength training, but I watch them every day when they warm up – with a lot of core (strengthening) stuff – and things he does now, he couldn’t begin to do then,’’ the coach added. ``So, he’s done a good job with that and he’s been diligent in everything. I’ve been pleased with everything. He’s had a good approach, he’s got the right attitude, he’s a good listener, he’s bright and picks things up quickly and he’s got super talent. I’d say everything is going well.’’
While Clifford has continued to insist that Bamba is going to need time in the NBA before he is ready for a major role, he has hinted at using the 7-footer alongside of Vucevic at times. The goal for Clifford is quite simple: Find a way to get two of Orlando’s most dynamic players on the floor more. Because both Vucevic and Bamba possess perimeter shooting skills and Bamba possesses the lateral quickness to guard smaller players, they think the pairing could potentially work and allow the Magic to use the centers simultaneously.
``I’m going to be a guy who is going to be able to defend a lot of different positions and Coach (Clifford) really does believe that myself and Vooch will be on the floor at the same time,’’ Bamba said. ``So, I’ve got to be able to defend (power forwards) and even at times have to defend (small forwards). It’s about being that inside presence, defensively being an anchor and offensively coach is going to play a lot through me.’’
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