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Meet the 2018 Draft’s Biggest Boom-or-Bust Prospect

Mo Bamba has the potential to be the next great NBA defensive anchor. But can the Texas center with the massive wingspan ever reach his high ceiling?

Mo Bamba Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The basketball must be tossed into orbit to make it past his 7-foot-9 wingspan and 9-foot-6 standing reach.

When he leaps, his fingertips almost reach the top of the backboard.

Toss him the ball and he will dunk it through the rim with the force of a meteor crashing to earth.

This is Mohamed Bamba, or “Mo” for short. But Mo is anything but short. The long-limbed, 19-year-old freshman center is averaging 11.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.4 blocks per game for Texas. He’s a likely top-five pick in the 2018 draft who projects to at least be able to protect the rim, run the floor, and hit midrange jumpers at the next level.

But he’s also the hardest prospect to figure out in the top tier of this year’s expected draft class. Teams want as close to a sure thing as possible at no. 1. With five other potential first overall picks expected to be on the board, would a team be willing to take a chance on Bamba at the top of the draft?

The Bamba Effect on Defense

Bamba’s defense is the foundation for the rest of his career. His endless arms allow him to rack up deflections, steals, blocks, shot alterations, and maybe even the ability to tie his shoes without leaning over. He’s equally stellar at blocking shots with either of his hands, and does a good job of staying vertical and not fouling. His excellent timing to take off for attempts only makes him more of a menace around the rim—and on the perimeter, where he’s tallied four blocks on 3-point attempts this season. Players are regularly deterred from attempting shots, or they toss up floaters and tough reverse layups because of Bamba’s presence.

“The guy could block the sun,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after Bamba blocked eight shots against the Jayhawks. Weeks later, after Bamba had five blocks against Texas Tech, Red Raiders coach Chris Beard one-upped Self: “He could block the moon and the sun.” To make matters worse for opponents, Bamba is also mobile and does a solid job of switching onto the perimeter, rotating from the weak side, and containing the pick-and-roll. It’s hard for anyone to get by him when he stays in a defensive stance. It’s not an exaggeration to say Bamba could develop into an effective five-position defender if he masters fundamentals, anticipation, and positioning. But that’s a big if.

Bamba’s long limbs also give him a wide margin for error, but high-end NBA players won’t be so forgiving. Bamba needs to strengthen his lean legs. The 6-foot-11, 225-pound center gets pushed around by stronger players when defending the post or boxing out. Post-ups are becoming less frequent in the NBA, but it’s still important for Bamba to be able to prevent more skilled bigs from sealing him off under the rim in early transition offense and late-clock situations.

Bamba also lacks the intensity and toughness you’d prefer in a defensive anchor. He rarely boxes out and relies primarily on his length to grab rebounds that come near him—which is fine, but the point is there’s room for improvement in rebounding out of his area, boxing out, and playing with more effort. When other players are sprinting, you might find Bamba in cruise control.

There are a lot of similarities between Bamba now and Rudy Gobert when he was a prospect. Bamba’s measurements and defensive strengths and weaknesses are virtually identical to Gobert’s before the French 7-footer entered the league in 2013. Bamba, 19, is ahead of where Gobert was at 21, but effort was never an issue for Gobert. “His want to be good is as unique as his wingspan and standing reach,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told ESPN last year.

It remains to be seen whether those words will stand true for Bamba. NBA scouts and executives I’ve chatted with say Bamba is a good, smart kid, who even attended the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference—twice. One scout noted how well Bamba tends to respond to challenges, citing a December game in which Tennessee State’s beefy big man Christian Mekowulu looked like Shaq at times against Bamba before the Texas center ratcheted up his defensive intensity in the second half, leading to a Longhorns win. A few weeks later, against Iowa State, freshman big man Cameron Lard also outplayed Bamba to start the game; but Bamba again turned up his aggression to 11 at the end of regulation and in overtime. Ideally, Bamba would bring intensity all game. But there’s something to be said for a player who rises during an adverse situation.

The Jazz came up with a highly detailed player-development system for Gobert after drafting him 27th overall in 2013. As ESPN detailed, Utah used biomechanical data from P3, a sports science company out of Santa Barbara, and targeted his hips and glutes as areas to strengthen to improve his athleticism, strength, and durability. Gobert might’ve slipped to the end of the first round of the draft, but he fell into the ideal situation. A similarly well-thought-out approach will be big for Bamba, whose environment may matter as much as his effort if he’s to become an All-Defense-level player in the NBA.

A Lack of Effect on Offense

Bamba’s defensive upside is unquestionable, but his offensive skills are nothing but question marks. This is Bamba at his best:

Bamba blocks a shot, then after 13 steps over four seconds, he catches a pass in stride and skies for a monster slam. An engaged Bamba is a sight to behold. But his otherworldly measurables don’t correlate to freakish athleticism. He’s no lumbering giant, but he doesn’t shoot out of a cannon like DeAndre Jordan. Bamba’s athleticism is more similar to Gobert’s or Hassan Whiteside’s.

That’s good enough, as both big men are among the league’s best rollers. But they didn’t start that way, and neither will Bamba. Gobert developed soft hands to catch tough passes, learned how to read defenses to time his dives and cuts, and mastered screening. Only then did he become a ferocious finisher.

One of the keys to an effective pick-and-roll comes from the contact created with the initial screen. But Bamba tends to slip most screens, and he’s so lean it’s not hard for defenders to scoot around him. He doesn’t handle contact well or finish the way you’d expect a player with such long arms to.

College defenses clog the lane because there are no three-second violations, so NBA spacing will be a boon for Bamba. A competent point guard who can accurately deliver the ball will help, too. But Bamba’s feel on rolls, dives, and cuts is still average. He’ll need to learn how to recognize gaps in a defense, then make it pay. Bamba has quality hands and flashes the ability to finish with either hand, but he occasionally fumbles or double-clutches passes. Little details like this are the difference between becoming the next Gobert and the next Willie Cauley-Stein.

The rest of his offense needs even more work. Bamba’s lack of strength severely limits him on the blocks. He struggles to wall off defenders, so he gets pushed far from the rim, and he lacks advanced post moves. Post-ups are becoming a rarity in the NBA, sure, but the quality of Bamba’s interior touches reveals a player who gets stripped far too frequently and lacks recognition skills to fire passes when he’s under pressure. His Texas teammates aren’t particularly good at throwing entry passes, but even when they’re on target, Bamba too often bobbles the ball or dribbles rather than going straight up.

The 3-Point Variable

Bamba is often described as “Gobert with a 3-point shot.” Which is … technically true. Bamba is shooting 20.6 percent on 34 3-point attempts this season. See?

That’s an encouraging sign for his future in a league pushing its bigs to shoot more and more from 3. But Longhorns fans get frustrated by his tendency to float on the perimeter, and for good reason: He’s not very good at shooting from there. Bamba wasn’t a good 3-point shooter in high school. His free throw percentage has always hovered in the mid-60s. He has only average touch on his hook shots. And he’s no better shooting from midrange, hitting just 22.2 percent of his attempts. Bamba can shoot, but there’s not a lot of evidence he can shoot well.

It’s possible we are projecting what we want Bamba to be rather than accepting what he is. Even Joel Embiid, as wonderful as he is, shoots only 29.1 percent from 3. If Embiid—a far better scorer than Bamba—isn’t a major concern for defenses when he’s standing at the 3-point line, then Bamba won’t be, either. Embiid can at least make defenses pay with nifty high-low passes. Bamba is a solid passer, but doesn’t display advanced vision operating out of the high or low post, or on the short roll. Passing is a skill that can be developed, but Bamba likely projects as an average ball mover rather than a skilled facilitator.

Who Will Bamba Be in the NBA?

You might love or hate Bamba as a prospect depending on your basketball philosophy, and perhaps your preferred system. I texted five NBA executives and scouts for non-Gobert comparisons and the response was scattered. Two of the scouts said there’s no comparison other than Gobert. The others responses were Tyson Chandler, Clint Capela, and Jermaine O’Neal.

None of these potential outcomes are necessarily bad, though they seem underwhelming considering Bamba’s hype. Depending on how the lottery goes, Bamba could go as high as no. 1, or maybe even as low as no. 7 or 8. Bamba would be a dream for the Mavericks, who could use him as a new version of Chandler. But the Hawks might prefer a bucket-getter like Deandre Ayton (Arizona) or Marvin Bagley III (Duke). Teams like the Sixers that already have key players who can’t shoot might prefer a shooting big man like Jaren Jackson Jr. (Michigan State).

It’s only mid-January. Bamba is making progress and playing well during Texas’s conference schedule. But even if he makes a leap before the end of the season, this unique prospect is bound to divide opinions.