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The Plight of Mo Bamba and Developing Young NBA Bigs

The Magic have a young center with tantalizing potential who has barely seen the floor in three seasons. The reason? They’re trying to win.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Not much has gone right for Mo Bamba in his first three NBA seasons. The no. 6 pick in the 2018 draft has been stuck behind All-Star Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, and lost his spot in the rotation to Khem Birch even before missing five games due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Bamba returned in the Magic’s 107-104 loss to the Hornets on Sunday, only to receive his eighth DNP-CD of the season. But it’s hard to label Bamba a bust when he has barely gotten a chance to show what he can do. His struggle to earn playing time illustrates why it’s so hard to develop young big men in the NBA.

Bamba has shown flashes of talent when he’s seen the floor. He has career per-36-minute averages of 13.8 points on 47.0 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks. The problem is that he’s averaged only 14.8 minutes per game. There are not many players who possess his ability to protect the rim (he has a 7-foot-10 wingspan) and knock down 3-pointers (career 32.6 percent on 1.6 attempts per game). But that’s all theoretical at this point. Bamba doesn’t shoot well enough to force defenses to respect him on the perimeter, and doesn’t yet have the strength to finish at a high level in the paint. He’s a career 54.3 percent shooter from 2-point range on 3.2 attempts per game, which is below the mark of most defensive-minded centers who aren’t asked to create much offense.

Defense has been Bamba’s bigger issue. Blocking shots is only a small part of his job on that side of the ball at the NBA level. The 7-footer is still learning how to defend the pick-and-roll and call out coverages for his teammates, and when to stay on his man or rotate as a help-side defender. It’s never been harder to learn those things because offenses are spreading the floor better than ever. Big men need to cover more space, which means one false step or split-second hesitation is all it takes to give up a basket.

It’s not just Bamba. The five big men drafted in the 2018 lottery are all still works in progress on that end of the floor. Jaren Jackson Jr., the no. 4 pick, has been out all season recovering from meniscus surgery. The rest have terrible on/off splits on defense. There are a lot of complicating factors in these numbers, and Bamba has played so little that his are almost meaningless. But they do show how difficult it is for a young big man to anchor a good defense early in his career, which is the primary responsibility for interior players:

2018 Lottery Centers in 2021

Player Team Defensive Rating On (Minutes) Team Defensive Rating Off (Minutes) Difference
Player Team Defensive Rating On (Minutes) Team Defensive Rating Off (Minutes) Difference
Deandre Ayton 113.2 (477) 96.2 (263) minus-17
Mohamed Bamba 126.5 (33) 109.6 (788) minus-16.9
Wendell Carter Jr. 117.6 (377) 104.3 (396) minus-13.3
Marvin Bagley III 120.9 (427) 112.9 (346) minus-8

Jackson is off to the best start of the bunch precisely because he hasn’t had to shoulder as much of the defensive burden. He’s an elite 3-point shooter (career 38.4 percent on 4.4 attempts per game) whose ability to play power forward has allowed the Grizzlies to pair him with more traditional rim protectors like Marc Gasol and Jonas Valanciunas. His defense, a strength in college, has been the weakest part of his game in the NBA. The other four teams have all been stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to developing their young centers. It’s difficult to put together successful lineups around players who can’t guard or stretch the floor.

Bamba, unlike Ayton, Bagley, and Carter, did not land on a team willing to take a step back to wait on him. The Magic had missed the playoffs in each of the previous six seasons before selecting Bamba in 2018, and hired a veteran coach in Steve Clifford to get them over the hump. Clifford boosted their win total by 17 games in his first season and got them into the postseason the next two. But without much star power on the roster, Orlando has had to win games on the margins. In that situation, even the backup center job is too valuable to give to someone who can’t help the team stay afloat in those minutes. Bamba has needed time to play through his mistakes. The Magic haven’t had any time to give.

It was a different situation when Vucevic came to Orlando in 2012. The Magic had just made six straight playoff appearances behind Dwight Howard, and were beginning a long rebuilding process after his departure. Vucevic started 134 games and played 4,371 minutes in his first two seasons with the Magic, who went 43-121 in that time. Bamba, on other hand, has started only one game and played 1,644 minutes in his first two seasons. That playing time effect is compounded by the fact that Bamba spent just one season in college while Vucevic spent three.

It’s hard to blame Clifford for not playing the 22-year-old Bamba this season. Vucevic is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 23.2 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 42.6 percent from 3 on 6.4 attempts per game. Birch was a key part of a second unit that helped the Magic get out to a surprising 6-2 start before starting point guard Markelle Fultz tore his ACL. Some of the team’s best lineups feature Birch at the 5 with multiple 3-point shooters around him.

Birch, a 28-year-old journeyman who spent three seasons in the G League and Europe before signing with the Magic in 2017, is everything that Bamba is not. He doesn’t have the same size, shooting touch, or tantalizing potential, but he’s a savvy veteran who is almost always in the right position on both sides of the ball. He’s a great screen setter who sacrifices his body by rolling hard to the rim and collapsing the defense even if he knows he won’t get the rock. Birch does all the little things that a playoff contender needs from its backup center.

It’s unfair to ask Bamba to do those same things. He’s a lottery pick with the upside to play all over the floor on offense. Clifford has let Bamba take 3s and try to expand his offensive game, but the Magic don’t need that on a second unit built around an elite sixth man in Terrence Ross. Ross, who can stop on a dime and fire 3s after racing around off-ball screens, is better with a big man who can use his body to free him up. Bamba presents a similar problem on defense. Bamba is an elite shot blocker who has to learn that there are times when it’s better not to go for the swat. Birch doesn’t have that issue. His career block percentage (2.8) is almost three times lower than Bamba’s (7.9). Birch doesn’t make as many positive defensive plays, but he makes up for it by allowing fewer negative ones.

The best thing that could happen to Bamba’s development is for the Magic to slip out of the playoff race. They are 1-8 without Fultz and have dropped to no. 12 in the East. Clifford will have a hard time finding minutes for Bamba if the team’s goal is to make a play-in series. And Orlando has shown signs of life in its past three games, all of which have gone down to the wire. Clifford is starting to figure out a new rotation, moving Aaron Gordon to more of a playmaking role in Fultz’s absence and playing him more minutes with the second unit.

The Magic will have to play Bamba at some point, if for no other reason than he’s up for an extension this offseason. They spent a high lottery pick on him three years ago and still have no idea what they have. The first thing the front office will have to do is either trade Birch at the deadline, or let him walk in free agency this summer, because Clifford has shown that he will not play Bamba over him. Bamba is still only 22. It might take awhile for the game to really slow down for him. Vucevic didn’t become an effective defender until he was 27. Birch didn’t make the NBA until he was 25. Orlando essentially committed to extending its rebuilding process indefinitely when it drafted Bamba. It just might not have known it at the time.