ORLANDO – Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba is a mountain of a man what with his towering height, broad shoulders and expansive wingspan. Yet following another Magic loss on Wednesday, Bamba’s booming voice was as quiet as a whisper, his shoulders slumped and his usually larger-than-life persona shrank in disappointment.
Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, knows full well that the Magic count on him to be an anchor defensively on their second unit and someone that the team can expect to make the right play on the offensive end of the floor. Also, the team wants to see nightly improvement from a player considered to be a cornerstone piece for the franchise. When he came up well short of those goals, Bamba admitted to being highly disappointed in himself.
``When it comes to how we played, it’s a little tough (to deal with),’’ Bamba said. ``Our job (as a bench unit) is to gain or maintain a lead and whenever we’re not able to do that, it’s tough for us.’’
Bamba, 20, gets a chance to try and redeem himself tonight when the Magic (14-19) face the Toronto Raptors (26-10) at the Amway Center at 7 p.m. The Magic have dropped four games in a row and seven of the last nine, while the Raptors possess the best record in the NBA.
Bamba, who had two points and five rebounds in 14 minutes on Wednesday, wasn’t alone in his struggles on Wednesday as the Magic’s bench played poorly, putting too much of a strain on the starting five. Orlando seemed to hit a wall physically in Wednesday’s overtime, missing its final nine shots in the 122-120 loss to the Suns.
Bamba has a history of bouncing back from poor outings. Following a lackluster showing on Nov. 7 in a loss to Detroit, Bamba responded two nights later with 15 points, three assists, a block and a 3-pointer in a win against Washington. Head coach Steve Clifford is hopeful that the Magic’s reserves and the rookie center respond with a much better effort tonight.
``For him, he has a checklist of things and he knows what he has to do to play (well),’’ Clifford said. ``Listen, this league is challenging. For him, he’s a young guy and a big part of his development is increased strength and with that will come better play. There are just some things for him to do. Tonight, (he’ll face) Greg Monroe and (recently Robin) Lopez and those guys have played forever. He’s giving up 25 pounds and they hit and go straight ahead and he gets knocked sideways. You do that over eight-to-nine minutes and it takes a lot out of you.
``Having been in this league a long time, he just needs to keep going out there and playing,’’ Clifford added. ``He’s had some nights when he’s played well. He’s doing a great job in the weight room and he’s doing a good job learning. That’s the only way you can do it – it’s got to be baby steps.’’
Orlando is familiar with the firepower of the Raptors after having faced them on Nov. 20. The Magic pushed Toronto to the brink, but lost 93-91 when Danny Green hit a short, baseline jumper at the final buzzer. The Magic played well defensively that night, especially the work that Aaron Gordon did in holding Kawhi Leonard (18 points) well below his season scoring average.
``Just make things difficult for him, stay down on pump fakes. He’s a really good player and I’ve just got to make him uncomfortable,’’ Gordon said. ``He’s solid. He doesn’t talk a lot and kind of lulls you asleep. So, I’ve just got to be locked in all game long.’’
Bamba considers Leonard a family friend after the two met some six years ago through Bamba’s older brother. Leonard, who hung out at Bamba’s apartment when the Raptors were in Orlando in November, has been something of a mentor to Bamba and has occasionally offered up advice to the big man in his attempt to make the transition from college basketball to the NBA.
For now, Bamba is focused on trying to become a more consistent force off the Magic’s bench. He leads the team in blocked shots (1.34) despite playing just 17 minutes a game. Still, he thinks he can ultimately become the rim protector that the Magic need to stabilize their second unit. He shot down the theory that he’s hit the proverbial ``rookie wall,’’ and insisted that he just needs to be more dialed into the things he needs to do to be successful.
``I think we’ve taken a step offensively, but a step defensively back,’’ Bamba said in response to Phoenix scoring 50 paint points against the Magic on Wednesday. ``I’m still pretty fresh (physically), in fact very fresh. I feel like I’m doing OK (physically) for getting a taste for the first time of how it is (in the NBA).’’
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