Magic Select Mohamed Bamba With Sixth Pick

by John Denton

ORLANDO – An Orlando Magic franchise in desperate need of the size, shot-blocking and rim protection that they have lacked for the past six seasons was able to check all the boxes with their first pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft.

Mohamed Bamba, a 7-foot center with the longest wingspan ever recorded among draft-eligible players at 7 feet, 10 inches, became the newest member of the Magic when the franchise boldly selected him with the No. 6 overall pick.

``I really still can’t describe how I feel right now,’’ Bamba said. ``All that hard work and all the anticipation of it has finally paid off.’’

Bamba, who blocked at least four shots in a game 19 times this past season at the University of Texas, fits the profile preferred by Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond. The two have a long history of drafting tall, rangy players with expansive wingspans and they did just that again on Thursday night for the Magic. While working in Milwaukee and later in Orlando, Weltman and Hammond drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo, Larry Sanders, John Henson, Thon Maker and Jonathan Isaac.

Now, the Magic hope to team the 7-foot Bamba with the 6-foot-11 Isaac and 6-foot-9 high-flyer Aaron Gordon in hopes that they can transform their defense into one that is feared throughout the NBA.

``Surprised and elated that Mo fell to us at six,’’ Weltman said. ``We knew the scenarios, we knew what it would take for something like that to happen and we knew for that to happen that there would have to be movement in front of us. The Dallas/Atlanta trade was the movement that we needed. … We are elated to get Mo Bamba and we jumped through the roof when he was available. We look forward to a very bright future with Mo.

``There are so many things that you need to be successful in the league, but length is a huge element of floor coverage and it has to go along with all the other elements you need,’’ added Weltman, whose Magic also added rangy second-round picks Melvin Frazier (No. 35) and Justin Jackson (No. 43) on Thursday. ``If you can have (length) and maintain skill level and all the other intangibles that you can list, you’d always rather have it. And when you start adding it up with a lot of players it starts to become kind of a forced multiplier.’’

Bamba, who has been friends with Isaac for years, has already started envisioning the defensive possibilities of playing alongside last season’s No. 6 pick. However, Bamba cautioned that he is far from being a savior and he’ll need time to adapt to the NBA game.

``Obviously, I’m not going to sit here and say that things are going to change overnight because it takes more than one person, but I truly believe with the teammates that are around me that we have the right pieces to make the organization successful,’’ said Bamba, who has already had chats with Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson about adjusting to the NBA game. ``I’m really confident in my ability to (guard smaller wing players following switches). I think I showcased that while in college, but it’s definitely an area that I think I can improve in and be dominant.’’

Bamba, a native of Harlem, interviewed with the Magic at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in late May, but he didn’t visit Orlando in the weeks leading up the draft. He talked with Weltman and Hammond several times and went through the medical testing the team wanted prior to Thursday. The Magic were more than comfortable making him the new anchor of their defense.

``The comparisons often get made with him and (Utah center) Rudy Gobert and he will be the longest player in the NBA with that 7-10 wingspan,’’ Weltman said. ``He’s already, in his short time playing in college, to be an elite-level shot-blocker. He’s got good feet, he’s a smart player. And I always say this (to the media), but it’s true: We don’t just draft the player; we draft the person. He’s a unique individual who happens to be a unique basketball player as well.’’

Expecting Bamba to be picked before their No. 6 selection came along, Orlando was considered trading up to pick the center. They didn’t have to do that when Bamba was still available at No. 6. The Atlanta Hawks swapped the third and fifth picks with the Dallas Mavericks. Atlanta, a Southeast Division rival of the Magic, nabbed Young at five and the Mavericks ended up with European sensation Luka Doncic. That dropped Bamba – a top-five pick by nearly every draft analyst – into the laps of a Magic franchise delighted to add the towering center.

Bamba, 20, saw his stock soar in the days leading up to the NBA Draft because of his combination of shot-blocking and shot-making from afar. Already possessing a wingspan some five inches longer than top overall pick DeAndre Ayton, Bamba worked this offseason to add a shooting stroke that should extend out to the NBA 3-point line.

``I probably shot close to 200,000 of those (NBA 3-pointers) with my new, reformed shooting stroke and honestly that was it for me getting that good repetition because that’s the only way you can change your jump shot,’’ he said. ``For me pre-draft was all about me bettering myself anyway that I could. I was finally able to develop at the rate that I wanted to, and it was awesome. Actually, there was no other time in my life like the pre-draft because of how much of a professional that I’ve come with all that I did with the day-to-day things.’’

Bamba grew up in the Foster Projects section of Harlem in New York. His grandparents are from Mali, while his parents immigrated to the United States from the Ivory Coast. He finished high school in Pennsylvania before choosing to play college basketball at Texas.

Bamba, affectionally nicknamed ``Mo’’ by those who know him best, swatted 3.7 shots a game in his one college season at the University of Texas. Bamba also averaged 12.9 points and 10.4 rebounds in 29 games with the Longhorns.

Also, the towering center had some of his best performances in Texas’ biggest games, scoring 22 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and swatting eight shots against Kansas, swatting seven shots against Texas Tech and blocking six more versus Texas Christian.

He feels that extraordinary length will translate to the NBA and he will be able to have an immediate impact in bettering Orlando’s defense.

``This is something that will be monumental for our defensive scheme,’’ Bamba said of his length playing a major role in Orlando’s defense. ``I know that Coach (Clifford) is going to be very comfortable throwing me out there to guard multiple positions and guard the rim. And I can lean on my teammates to do that as well.’’

Phoenix had the number one selection in the draft and, not surprisingly, took 7-foot center Deandre Ayton out of the University of Arizona. Intrigue surrounded which direction Sacramento would go with the second pick and it ultimately chose Marvin Bagley III instead of Doncic. Atlanta traded the third pick to Dallas, allowing the Mavericks to take Doncic. Memphis opted for 18-year-old power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. at No. 4, while Atlanta nabbed Young at No. 5.

Orlando picked at No. 6 in the draft for a second straight season, selecting Jonathan Isaac in 2017. The Magic have missed the playoffs each of the last six seasons and, as a result, have picked in the lottery six straight years. They drafted Victor Oladipo (No. 2) in 2013, Aaron Gordon (No. 4) in 2014, traded for Elfrid Payton (No. 10) in 2014, Mario Hezonja (No. 5) in 2015 and Domantas Sabonis (No. 11) in 2016.

At the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, Bamba had his wingspan measured at 7-foot, 10 inches – three inches longer than the next closest prospect for this draft (Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike). Bamba’s reach is even more expansive than the 7-feet, 8 1/2-inch reach of Gobert, a strong candidate to win this season’s Defensive Player of the Year award in the NBA. Combine Bamba’s reach with his 7-foot-3/4 height and he is within a quarter-inch of reaching the rim while standing flat-footed.

Undoubtedly, he said, that jaw-dropping length with help him ultimately become a game-changer in the NBA.

``I was pretty surprised myself (about his wingspan),’’ Bamba said, referring to testing he was put through to check his weight (225.6 pounds), body fat index (6.2 percent), hand width (10.25 inches) and hand length (9.75 inches). ``Honestly, this might sound cliché, but I think I’ve grown a little bit since the pre-draft process started. That’s just wild to me.

``One word to summarize it all would be my `presence,’ both offensively and defensively,’’ he added. ``The presence that I have is pretty profound, more than any other prospect.’’

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