Prominent Skills Coach Helping Bamba Become More Polished

Coach amazed by how quickly rookie center is improving
by John Denton

LAS VEGAS – A few months before he was catching pick-and-pop passes from Orlando Magic teammate Jonathan Isaac and effortlessly burying 3-point shots, Mohamed Bamba was honing that stroke and building his confidence off feeds from a 5-foot-11, former point guard from Belmont University.

Drew Hanlen, the most prominent skills coach among budding NBA stars and someone who has played a major role in the successes of Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, drilled tirelessly with Bamba for the three months between the end of his college career at the University of Texas and the June 21st NBA Draft. That work not only allowed the 20-year-old Bamba to be the No. 6 draft pick by the Magic, but it has given him the confidence that he can ultimately become the kind of transformational player who might redefine how centers play in the NBA.

Hanlen, CEO of the California-based Pure Sweat Basketball skills academy, is certainly willing to give his endorsement to Bamba and the 7-footer’s pursuit to be the best player from the draft class of 2018.

``A hundred percent, he would be up there with the most improved guys that I’ve ever worked with, for sure,’’ Hanlen said candidly. ``We kind of looked at (his offseason workouts) like this was his Day 1 and his first day of training, and he came such a long, long way.

``I’ve been quoted as saying that he came longer in three months than any pre-draft guy I have had,’’ Hanlen added. ``That wasn’t a marketing strategy; that the truth because he has come so far. He’s in a good place and he’s still got a long way to go in getting better.’’

The star-starved Magic certainly agree with Hanlen’s praise and they are eager to reap the benefits of the growth that the rookie seems certain to make in the seasons to come. Bamba already possesses the longest wingspan ever recorded in NBA history (7 feet, 10 inches), and when you combine that with his willingness to work, his smarts on and off the court and his desire to be special, the Magic feel that they could have nabbed the jewel of the 2018 NBA Draft.

``We have a great, great group of scouts and they saw Mo do things that he wasn’t always able to show in (University of Texas) games,’’ said Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, who was overjoyed when Bamba was available for Orlando in the NBA Draft at No. 6. ``They saw him in practice. We all kind of projected him out from where he is now and liked it. And, as we always say, `If the person is of high character, then the talent will be there.’ We always felt that he had both boxes checked.’’

Bamba, the well-spoken, well-travelled and well-read type rarely seen in the NBA, thinks it’s only a matter of time before his physical tools, raw talent and desire allow him to reach the league’s top tiers of big men. He’s shown glimpses of those abilities in this week’s MGM Resorts NBA Summer League, leading the Magic to a 2-1 mark so far with his scoring (26 points), rebounding (16 boards), 3-pointers made (two), blocked shots (seven) and countless defensive denials with that towering wingspan. This, he insists, is just a small sample of what’s to come in the years ahead.

``I’m focused on Summer League now, but I’ve definitely already set lofty goals for myself that are within reach,’’ Bamba said following his strong start in summer play with the Magic. ``I want to be the guy who comes in and has an impact immediately. One of my goals is to be Defensive Player of the Year. One of my goals is to be Rookie of the Year. And one of my long-term goals is to be walking across that stage with a jacket on and a nice, little patch on it that says `Hall of Fame.’

``There’s definitely some work to do between here and there and one thing that I learned from Coach (Shaka) Smart at Texas is that there is really never a finish line,’’ he added.

`TEACHING HIM HOW TO PLAY’

The youngest son of Ivory Coast immigrants and a Harlem native, Bamba often got to see the rougher elements of the Foster Projects section while growing up. Ultimately, he poured himself into basketball and spent nearly every free hour playing pick-up games on the playground courts near his family home.

Quickly approaching 7-foot by the 10thgrade, he attended high schools in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania while also starring on the AAU circuit. Despite being a McDonald’s high school All-American and a five-star recruit who was pursued by Kentucky, Duke and Michigan before ultimately choosing Texas, Bamba didn’t always see himself as a transformational player. That transition – both in mindset and in his on-court presence – would come after college.

At Texas, his final numbers were somewhat pedestrian – 12.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots a game – on a Longhorns’ team that was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (he had 13 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks and missed his lone 3-point try against Nevada).

It wasn’t until after he announced his intentions to head to the NBA that Bamba started to fully grow toward the enormous potential that NBA talent evaluators ultimately see in him now. Tucked away in a nondescript high school gym just outside of Los Angeles for twice-a-day sessions, Bamba started at ground zero while drilling with Hanlen. And when the two of them weren’t on the court working together, they were usually watching video breakdowns – sessions that satiated Bamba’s inquisitive disposition to learn every detail about a subject.

``He’s really smart and sophisticated, but the big thing is that he’s really curious,’’ Hanlen said of his client who called him last Friday following his pro debut with the Magic for immediate feedback on his 11-point, five-rebound, one-block performance. ``That’s one of the things when you are trying to develop guys – them wanting to learn and get better. Otherwise, they’ll be happy with most-of-the-way-correct instead of wanting totally perfect it. Instead of saying, `OK, I got the gist of this,’ he wanted to know everything.’’

After much deliberation, Bamba and Hanlen narrowed the focus of the workouts down to three areas: perimeter shooting, mid-post, attack moves and low-post footwork. Those facets were analyzed to the smallest of degrees – as in hundredths of a second on his shot release. A 3-point shot that once took Bamba 0.93 seconds to release now leaves his hand in 0.75 seconds and it’s infinitely more accurate than when he played for Texas.

Rather quickly, Hanlen saw a level of confidence rise in Bamba and the center with guard skills started to realize that his ceiling could be so much higher than the traditional big man who simply loiters around the lane.

``When we started, we basically started from scratch and it was like a blank piece of paper,’’ said Hanlen, a St. Louis native who led Belmont University (Tenn.) to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and ’12 during his playing days. ``We had to completely re-tool his jump shot, he had no mid-post or low-post moves and he really didn’t have the ability to attack off the dribble when he was in pick-and-pop situations and gets the ball back.

``He looked lost sometimes at Texas and that caused a lot of people to say that he was lazy, didn’t love the game or whatever,’’ Hanlen continued. ``Being with him for three months, I can tell you that he really loves the game of basketball and really wants to be special. He’s going to work to be special. He did lack effort at times at Texas, which we addressed on film. The second thing is just knowing what to do. People’s opinion of him lacking effort at times just came from him sometimes not knowing what to do. We’ve just been teaching him how to play and he’s one of my favorite players in this draft. … If people are patient and give him time, he’s going to be great.’’

What separated Hanlen from other skills coaches, Bamba said, was his ability to be incredibly technical with his instruction without overloading the information.

In addition to doing plenty of resistance and flexibility drills to help the lanky Bamba improve his lateral quickness, Hanlen did ``a complete overhaul’’ on the big man’s jump shot. The two of them worked to lower Bamba’s shooting pocket and to move the basketball placement to the right side of his face, while also riding it of the hitches that gave his attempts a ``sling-shot’’ effect before. Also, there was an emphasis placed on having Bamba release his shots off his index and middle fingers as opposed to his pinkie and ring finger.

Small details, for sure, but they have produced big results thus far for Bamba, who drilled 3-point shots in each of his first two Summer League games in Las Vegas. The end goal is to be a prototypical big man for today’s ``small-ball’’ generation, and one who can hold his own defensively when switched onto guards and drill perimeter shots offensively.

``I keep saying this, but it’s really night and day as far as my general confidence, my shot, my moves and everything,’’ said Bamba, referring to the progress that he’s made over the past three months. ``When you add this level of training, it really elevates your game to the next level.’’

In addition to having Bamba drilling against coaches with pads, Hanlen had a few other surprises for the developing big man to keep him fresh and dialed in. In late April, when the Philadelphia 76ers opened the playoffs against the Miami Heat, Hanlen travelled to The City of Brotherly Love to work out Embiid, who had yet to be cleared by 76ers doctors because of a facial fracture. Emiid and Bamba not only practiced together several times, the rising star would have Bamba back at his house after games to review game film and offer advice.

Hanlen also arranged meetings for Bamba with NBA legends Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett so they could offer advice. And not long after the Magic picked Bamba with the No. 6 pick in the June 21 draft and he visited Orlando a day later, he was back in California, drilling with Hanlen and playing some heated pick-up games against elite-level NBA talent.

``Usually with top-10 picks, they don’t play live during the (summer) process because you don’t want to risk injury, but right after he got drafted he came back out and I had him play one-on-one with Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid, which was a wake-up call and a rude awakening,’’ joked Hanlen, referring to the video clip where Embiid playfully yelled at Bamba following a thunderous dunk. ``He got to play two rounds of five-on-five with Joel, (Portland’s) Myers Leonard, (Washington’s) Kelly Oubre and (Cleveland’s) Jordan Clarkson – all my guys – and he got thrown in the fire right away and he learned a lot. He had been bumping against a pad and it’s a lot different bumping against me with a pad instead of 7-2, 285-pound Joel Embiid and he saw himself get a little rushed.’’

Bamba said he will forever be indebted to Hanlen for taking him on as a client when he had dozens of other NBA players and draft picks wanting to learn from the skills coach du jour among players now. Said Bamba: ``It means a lot to me that he decided to work with me and not anyone else when several guys were reaching out to him. That means a lot.’’

`IT’S A WHOLE NEW WORLD FOR HIM’

While Bamba has been impressive in the Magic’s summer league practices and in the three games played so far, he has much more work to do to get ready for the NBA’s regular season.

First off, he’s far too light at 225 pounds to survive long-term inside – as evidenced on Monday night when the 250-pound Deandre Ayton shoved him under the rim on one sequence. Secondly, Bamba knows that on screen-and-roll plays he must sprint harder to the rim because of the way it makes defenses collapse because of him being a dynamic lob threat. Said Isaac, his Magic teammate and a close friend from their roots as native New Yorkers: ``He’s that type of guy where you just throw it up anywhere near the square (on the backboard) and he’ll go and get it for a dunk.’’

Another area of concern is the fact that Bamba has not attempted a free throw in three summer league games. While he hasn’t attacked foes much in the paint, he did command the ball on Monday night when he realized that smaller forward Josh Jackson had been switched onto him. Bamba faked toward the middle of the floor, pirouetted toward the baseline and calmly sank a short jump shot.

Somewhere, Hanlen had to be smiling at how his prized pupil sized up the situation, executed the footwork needed and stayed in attack mode throughout.

Undoubtedly, the Magic had to be all smiles after that moment, as well. Head coach Steve Clifford and assistant Pat Delany – Orlando’s head coach for the summer action – have worked with Bamba in practices and their message to him this week has been this: Stay aggressive in everything he does.

Weltman, whose job it is to lead the Magic’s front office and get the franchise back in contention, was downright giddy on draft night that Bamba was still available at No. 6 for Orlando to draft him. In Bamba, he sees a center who has shown a willingness to work, possesses a hunger to be great and curiosity about the path that it will take to eventually get there. Bamba has shown that in the workouts with Hanlen and he’s shown it in the summer sessions with Orlando’s coaches. Continue to mesh the two and Bamba could potentially be on a collision course with greatness.

``He’s put a lot of time into his skill work and Coach (Steve Clifford) speaks about the difference between getting skill work and coaching where you are linking the skill work to a team,’’ Weltman said. ``That’s where Mo is transitioning now. He’s taking the things that he worked on with Drew and he’s getting an education on how to apply that into a game.

``College is such a different game and how he was used in college (is different) and he’ll have to do different things in the NBA,’’ Weltman added. ``The work with Drew will help him with that and also the exposure to our coaching staff telling him what he’s expected to do and showing him where he will excel. It’s a whole new world for him.’’

Mature well beyond his years, Bamba is well aware of that. But he is eager about a journey that he thinks will eventually lead to tremendous things for both himself and the Magic. Working with Hanlen and the coaches with the Magic have given him the confidence that he can change the game and ultimately be great.

``As far as being the best guy in the class, there’s definitely work still to do,’’ said Bamba, who noted that he uses a picture of top pick Ayton shaking hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as a screen saver on his laptop for daily motivation.

``I truly believe motivation is internal, but there are so many things that happen externally and it’s hard to not pick that up as motivation,’’ he added. (Golden State forward) Draymond Green is a guy that remembers (34) names that were picked ahead of him (in 2012). If I can carry that over into my game and have half the intensity that he had defensively and offensively, I think I’m going to be a player to remember in this league.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.