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Maybe Mo Bamba isn’t the long-term project many thought he was

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The Magic rookie shined in his debut, quickly winning over the Orlando crowd

Miami Heat v Orlando Magic Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Perhaps it happened when he swatted the ball into the second row.

Perhaps it was on one of his putback dunks.

Perhaps it was when he was defending Dwyane Wade’s full-length inbounds pass in the final second with his seven-foot, 10-inch wingspan.

Or perhaps it was when he sent out this postgame tweet.

Whichever moment it was, if you are a fan of the Orlando Magic, the odds are that Mo Bamba officially won you over on Wednesday night during the Magic’s season-opening 104-101 win over the Miami Heat.

It’s comes as no shock that the Magic’s prized rookie would win over the fanbase, it’s how quickly it happened that comes as the pleasant surprise. One game, 25 minutes of playing time. That was all it took.

Many, myself included, felt that Bamba would be a long-term developmental project requiring months or even years to evolve from raw talent to impact player. We would have to wait, show patience, temper expectations. For Magic fans, whose patience has already been tested for far too long, it was like being handed the keys to a brand new car but being told you can’t drive it for a year or two.

Then, on a night when the Magic celebrated their 30th season and honored the past, Bamba showed that the future is now and it is bright.

Bamba drained a three off a kick-out from Jerian Grant that broke a 76-76 tie in the third, giving the Magic a lead that would grow from there.

Bamba bookended one of the most electric sequences the Magic have had in a long time by blocking a finger roll by Wade into the stands to generate a buzz within the arena. After a pair of blocks by Terrence Ross on one end (“I told Terrence I didn’t know he could block like that,” Bamba said with a laugh after the game), Bamba converted a put-back dunk, bringing the crowd to its feet.

And yes, let’s briefly pause here to say we know damn well it was only one game and production for an NBA rookie can fluctuate dramatically from game to game. But what Bamba did on Monday goes beyond the 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks that he contributed.

He helped infuse hope into an organization and fanbase that has long been desperate for it. He helped the light at the end of the tunnel inch slightly closer and shine a little brighter.

For weeks we tried to analyze how much playing time Bamba would receive. And in his first NBA game, by cleaning up the glass, by showing range, by running the court, by protecting the paint and by energizing the team and the arena, Bamba made it difficult for Steve Clifford to take him off the court.

“I think he’s very poised,” Clifford told reporters of Bamba after the game. “I think that’s his nature. There’s a lot there besides his wingspan. He’s very bright, he’s very confident and he competes hard.”

Clifford sent Nikola Vucevic in for Bamba with 3:37 remaining after the rookie had helped the Magic build a 99-90 advantage. Not sure if this was to rest a tired rookie or to show respect to the team’s longest tenured player. But the drop in energy felt palpable when the swap was made and, whether there was a correlation or not, the Heat quickly climbed back in the game.

If Bamba continues to play as he did on Monday, he will be closing games, and starting them, much sooner than many anticipated.

“He’s a super athlete, he’s so talented and it’s good to know that you have that much talent with you,’’ Aaron Gordon told reporters after the game. “He makes plays where you’re like, `Whoa! I don’t even know if I can make that play.’ That’s the type (of player) that lets you know that we’ve got something special in him.’’

Which is why it didn’t take long for Bamba to win over the crowd with his play. The crowd will be behind him and the Magic even more if the team continues winning games.

“Now,” Bamba said, “it’s just a matter of doing that 81 more times.”