OKLAHOMA CITY – Orlando Magic rookie Mo Bamba has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left tibia, but the team is hopeful that the 7-foot rookie won’t need surgery – a factor that might allow him to play again this season.
Bamba, 21, was a late scratch from Orlando’s defeat of the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday when he started feeling pain in his lower leg. He had tests on the leg on Monday and a diagnosis was rendered on Tuesday just hours before the Magic were to take on the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman is hopeful that the franchise uncovered the injury before it became serious, potentially allowing Bamba to get back on the floor sooner. The franchise, which opened Tuesday just three games back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, is hopeful that with rest and an intensive rehabilitation process that Bamba will be able to avoid surgery.
``Thankfully, we caught this early and we’re able to treat Mo without surgery,’’ Weltman said. ``His return to action will depend on how he responds to treatment.’’
Bamba, the sixth overall pick of last June’s NBA Draft, has averaged 6.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and a team-best 1.36 blocked shots in 47 games this season. Owner of the longest wingspan in NBA history – 7 feet and 10 inches – the 7-foot, 221-pound Bamba has worked throughout this season to add weight and strength that should help him better compete defensively and in the post.
Magic coach Steve Clifford said prior to Tuesday’s game that the goal will be trying to help Bamba continue to grow as a player even if he isn’t able to return to game action this season. Years earlier, when Clifford coached in Charlotte, the team had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist chart action during games to keep him engaged.
``(Being injured) is an experience that almost every guy is going to have as they go forward when you play 82 games a season,’’ Clifford said. ``The biggest part is that he can still be engaged in different ways, and that’s what the text (message) was for. … This isn’t going to be something where (Bamba) is just sitting. Learning the league and learning the how it works – there are always different ways that you can get better and stay engaged. He’s good (with learning). He understood that (while) he’s injured, but the process and the experiences are still there, and we want to do everything that we can to make sure that he continues to grow.’’
Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, one of Bamba’s closest friends on the team, said he communicated with the rookie big man via text messages on Tuesday in an attempt to pick his spirits up.
``He’s doing all right and I told him to keep his spirits up and this is just what he has to do right now, and this has to be his focus,’’ said Isaac, who also struggled through injuries as a rookie. ``He said he’s doing good and I can’t wait to get back to Orlando to see him, talk to him and be there for him to help keep his head right.’’
Bamba alerted the Magic’s training staff in mid-January when he began experiencing pain in his left foot, and he was held out for a week and for four games as a precautionary measure when tests revealed no structural damage. Similarly, Bamba notified the team of the pain in his leg prior to Saturday’s game and it just might have prevented him from suffering a more serious injury.
``It comes from growing up and telling yourself that something is off,’’ Bamba said in January. ``It comes from the level of respect that I’ve built and have given to our training staff.
The Magic should be well-positioned at center to handle the injury to Bamba. Nikola Vucevic, an all-star for the first time in his eight NBA seasons, has averaged career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (12), assists (3.8) and blocked shots (1.17). Khem Birch, who has played well over two stretches while Bamba has been out, will receive the biggest boost in playing time. He had four points, six rebounds, a steal and a block in nearly 16 minutes of Saturday’s victory over Brooklyn.
``It was really devastating (hearing about the injury), but I told Mo that in five years he’s going to laugh at this moment because he has so much potential,’’ Birch said. ``This is just a wakeup call and hopefully he’ll just come back stronger, and I know he will.
``I’ve been preparing myself all season – even when I didn’t play, I’d prepare myself as if I was going to play,’’ Birch added. ``Right now, it’s just about getting back into rhythm and game shape and I’ll be fine.’’
It is the second straight season that the Magic have had to deal with injuries with one of their prized rookies. Last season, Isaac – the No. 6 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft – was limited to just 27 games because of a series of ankle injuries. The Magic’s patient approach to the injuries allowed Isaac to come back fully this season and post three double-doubles to go with career-best numbers across the board.
``You can’t do anything once (an injury) happens and all you can do is worry about what’s in front of you, focusing on that and doing what it takes to get back on the court,’’ Isaac said. ``(Bamba) has asked me questions about me being hurt even before he got hurt, so it’s definitely I can speak on and share with him.’’
As is often the case with most NBA rookies, Bamba’s first professional season has been filled with plenty of highs and lows. Because incumbent center Nikola Vucevic has had an all-star type of season as the Magic have made a strong push for the playoffs, Bamba has played just 16.3 minutes a game and has made just one start. Among all NBA rookies, he ranks fourth in blocked shots, fifth in rebounding, sixth in field goal percentage (48.3 percent) and 18thin scoring.
In the first regular-season game of his career, he had 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots as the Magic whipped the rival Miami Heat. His first double-double wouldn’t come for nearly another month as he posted 12 points and 11 rebounds in San Antonio – not far from where he spent his one collegiate season at the University of Texas. He seemed to be building good momentum a week later by scoring a career-best 15 points in consecutive games, but his production and effectiveness soon tailed off and he scored in double digits in just two of the next 23 games.
Bamba experienced pain in his left foot back on Jan. 9 and the Magic held him out the next four games as a precaution after tests revealed no structural damage in the foot. The two injuries are not thought to be related. In that instance, Bamba said he tried to learn while being out injured by watching others playing his position.
``I just tried to learn through other people – see what their mistakes are and where their success stems from,’’ Bamba said in January. ``Then, I just try to integrate that into my own game.’’
Bamba’s limited playing time seemed to rob him of the shooting rhythm he had early on. He made 13 of his first 40 3-point shots (32.5 percent) in his first 23 games in October and November, but he’s made just eight of 30 (26.6 percent) over his past 24 games in December and January.
Still, Bamba has used his expansive wingspan – measured to be the longest in NBA history at 7 feet, 10 inches – to make an impact on games. He led the Magic in rebounding three times and recorded at least one blocked shot in 36 times and two-or-more 19 times, including a career-best five on Oct. 30 against Sacramento.
Isaac, who spent much of last season and the summer working to grow his game and his body, said his teammate might be able to use the time away from game action to make some major strides in terms of his skills, strength and conditioning.
``That’s what it was all about for me last season and I’m absolutely sure it’s going to be the same for Mo,’’ Isaac said of being allowed to rehabilitate at his own pace. ``Him maybe being out maybe the rest of the season is going to give him a great opportunity to work on his body. Going into this summer, he can take this time now to focus on his body. So, I see it as Mo’s going to be just fine. He has a great organization and team behind him. We’re all thinking about him and looking forward to getting back to Orlando to see him.’’
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