Khem Birch, for the first month of the season, has sat on the bench watching Mo Bamba struggle as the Magic’s back-up center.
Birch, and just about anyone else who watches basketball, knows damn well that those minutes would be better spent on him. We saw evidence of that last season when Bamba’s absence and Birch’s promotion coincided with the Magic’s turnaround and playoff push. But when a team uses the sixth overall pick on a player, certain obligations come with that investment. In Bamba’s case, those obligations are playing time, development, and blind faith.
Of the lottery picks selected before and after him, Bamba is in a league of his own in terms of lack of production, with injury and Nikola Vucevic emerging as an All-Star no doubt stunting Bamba’s growth.
I know Mo Bamba's dealt with injuries... but he needs to step it up, especially now that Vuc might be out with an ankle injury...— David Baumann (@DavidBaumannORL) November 21, 2019
It's early, but Bamba is the least productive player so far of the Top 12 picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. #MagicAboveAll pic.twitter.com/nyYjoeovgP
Bamba’s per-36 averages of 11.2 rebounds (his 13.5% rebounding percentage is second on the team behind Vucevic’s 18.2%) and 3.1 blocks are promising. Unicorn potential remains.
But the Magic’s offensive rating this season plummets from 108.8 when Bamba if off the court to 90.9 when he is on it. Orlando’s turnover percentage jumps from 12.3 percent when Bamba is off the court to 17.0 percent when he is on it. As for any reserve, part of that can be attributed to playing with the second unit, particularly with Bamba spending 114 of his 161 minutes this season in the same frontcourt as free-agent addition Al-Farouq Aminu, another offensive liability to this point.
Bamba, though, has a dreadful effective shooting percentage of 38.4 percent, which among players who have taken at least 50 shot attempts this season is the sixth lowest in the NBA. He is shooting just 47.8 percent on shots within three feet of the rim and has attempted just six free throws this season. The eyeball test has at times been just as alarming as the advanced stats, with Bamba often failing to be in proper position, or making poor decisions with the ball, or just appearing lethargic.
Development often takes longer with big men, and Bamba’s learning curve has taken the scenic route in part because of lack of opportunity. Bamba, who played just 47 games as a rookie after suffering a fracture in his leg, is averaging only 13.4 minutes per game as the Magic limit his time and manage his workload. At the same time, Bamba is yet to prove that he is worthy of more playing time, or even of playing the full allotment of restricted minutes. Truth is, Vucevic’s ankle injury, which reports say could sideline him for over a month, for now will spare Bamba the Magic Twitter suggestions that he is in need of a trip to the G League.
Listen, I know he’s young & raw but night in and night out Mo Bamba absolutely kills the Magic. He’s clearly not ready for NBA basketball. The G League is a much better fit right now.— Justin Warmoth (@JustinWarmoth) November 21, 2019
Faith in Bamba among Magic fans may be wavering, but there is still plenty of time for Bamba to ensure his named is remember for something more than a Sheck Wes song. Bamba need only look across the locker room to see that rough starts can indeed be overcome. Many times this season we have defended Markelle Fultz and excused his flaws and limitations by saying, “This is still technically Fultz’s rookie season!” Yet we don’t afford Bamba the same courtesy, even though he has played in just 12 more games than Fultz.
There is no All-Star teammate standing between Fultz and opportunity/usage the way there is for Bamba. That is why this upcoming stretch, with Vooch sidelined, is so crucial for the 21-year-old center. It’s an opportunity for Bamba to work his way deeper into the rotation and reassure Magic fans that he is a project worth waiting on.
While Birch will make the rare jump from third-string to starting center, it’s Bamba’s responsibility to command more minutes through his play, prove that he can handle the added playing time, fill some of the void in Vucevic’s absence, and help the Magic stay afloat.
Ready or not, opportunity has presented itself.