Clifford Trusts Bamba's Judgment on Defense

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

MINNEAPOLIS – To become a difference-making, shot-blocker at the NBA level, Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba has learned that he needs more than just his towering 7-foot height and his expansive 7-foot, 10-inch wing span.

He also needs trust – a somewhat elusive trait in the early stages of his NBA career.

Prior to Wednesday’s game in Chicago, Magic head coach Steve Clifford told the rookie that he had trust in him to judge when to leave the player he was guarding and go to block shots. Doing so also takes a certain level of trust on Bamba’s part in that he must have belief that other Magic defenders will assist him as he soars high into the air while using his record-setting wingspan to swat or alter shots.

``Coach (Clifford) has given me free reign and the green light to go and block everything,’’ said Bamba, who swatted three shots in Orlando’s win on Wednesday in Chicago. ``Now, I’m trusting my teammates to go sink (onto his man) when I go to block a shot. It feels good as a player when you have a coach saying, `I trust you to go get whatever (defensively).’ (Clifford) told me (on Wednesday) in shootaround, `I really want you to go after (shots),’ so I talked my teammates and they said, `we’ve been wanting you to go after them.’’’

Orlando (17-20) is hopeful that Bamba will continue to be a dominant defensive presence tonight when they face the Minnesota Timberwolves (17-21) at Target Center. Tipoff is just after 8 p.m. ET.

Two days after their 112-84 demolition of the Bulls, the Magic will try and muster the same sort of desperation against a Minnesota squad that has dropped two games in a row. Orlando, which has won three of four of late, was especially efficient on Wednesday by shooting 57.9 percent from the floor, handing out 31 assists and swatting nine shots defensively. Now, they must do it again against a quality opponent.

``That’s what this whole league is about,’’ Clifford said, referring to consistency. ``You have to have a way to play that fits the league and fits your group. When you have those things, the constant challenge is to do it every night. For some teams, it’s easier than other teams. But when you have a way to play and everybody will commit to it, that’s when you will play well consistently.’’

Orlando is hopeful that it will be at full strength tonight. Point guard D.J. Augustin came through Wednesday’s game with no further hindrance in his sprained right ankle. Jonathon Simmons, who missed the past two games with a sprained left ankle, is hopeful to play, while reserve center Khem Birch rejoined the team following the Wednesday birth of his daughter.

Bamba, the Magic’s prized No. 6 pick from last spring’s NBA Draft, has steadily made progress as the NBA season has gone along. Through 37 games, he leads the team in blocked shots (1.4) while averaging 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds in 16.8 minutes a game.

Clifford has been urging Bamba to be more aggressive in going to swat shots, showing him instances in game footage when he should have gone after blocks and when he should have laid back in coverage.

``Just watching, it’s obviously step by step for all the younger players,’’ Clifford said. ``He had been (going to block shots) a little more and a little more. I think sometimes he’s concerned about, `if I go, my man is going to get the ball.’ He has to learn to be a good basket protector, you’ve got to go every time. And then his teammates have to learn when he goes, there has to be a level of sink and cover. (On Wednesday), he was much more active and it’s something we can build on.’’

When Clifford saw the replay of Bamba’s block of a Malik Monk floater on Monday, the veteran coach thought about the enormous defensive potential of the rookie big man. On the block, Bamba went some 2 ½ feet above the rim to reach the basketball. Slow-motion replays showed his hand extending upward some four-to-five inches from the top of the backboard.

``That’s why he was brought here. That’s what he should be doing,’’ Clifford said bluntly. ``He’s been doing it more and more as he gets comfortable. That (Monk block) is why he has a chance to be a terrific rim protector.’’

Bamba admitted that there’s been a bit of a transition from the college game to the NBA as it relates to defense. Whereas he could tower over most players in college, NBA players have shown little fear of going right at him and challenging him physically. Also, the NBA game is played at a much faster pace and Bamba said he’s grown more comfortable with the increased speed and physicality as he’s gotten more experience.

``It was (a big adjustment), but as you get more and more reps in practice and games, you pick it up on the fly better,’’ Bamba said. ``It’s just about being a step ahead of the defense and getting there early. I remember something that (teammate) Evan (Fournier) said about (it being beneficial to) get there late to contest, but I’ve got to focus on getting there early. Part of our defensive responsibilities are to not go and contest, but Coach (Clifford) has given me a little bit of freedom to go and do that.’’

Bamba added that it was a boost to his confidence to know that Clifford has the trust in him to make the decisions of when to contest shots and when not to.

``It’s very refreshing to hear and it means that Coach (Clifford) believes in my ability,’’ he said.

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