It’s no secret that Mo Bamba, the Magic’s sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft, had a disappointing rookie campaign.
It was one that ended in injury, sure, but it was also one that hadn’t risen to any great heights before that untimely circumstance. He looked uncertain and a step slow on the court, and it wasn’t a coincidence that the team’s strong play down the stretch coincided with his leaving the rotation.
Coming into Season Two expectations were tempered, but that’s not to say that the team weren’t hoping to see a meaningful return on their draft and development investment. Bamba would play behind Nikola Vucevic, with his place in the rotation ensured even after Khem Birch re-upped with the team. Still, the side’s long-term health needed him to indicate a step forward in the 16 minutes of court time he could expect.
The question then is whether or not such progress has been evident. Cometh the moment, cometh the Mo Bamba? Let’s dive in.
A cursory look at the game boxscores and season averages seemingly reveals a needle that hasn’t moved all that much. 5.6 points per contest in 2019/20 compared to 6.2 in 2018/19. 5.1 rebounds compared to 5.0. 1.4 blocks, 0.3 steals and 2.1 fouls per game, all of which are identical to his per-game averages in his first season. Bamba is producing counting stats basically in line with his rookie production.
The big difference evident in these numbers can actually be found when looking at his shooting. Bamba’s field goal percentage is down to 42.4% this season (from 48.1% in 2018/19), the result of a two-point conversion rate that has dropped by over 10 whole percentage points - from 55.5% to 44.1%. Most shockingly, his touch around the hoop has plummeted; the big man is scoring on just 60.5% of his attempts within 3 feet of the ring, down from 78.8% last season. That’s an almost unfathomable result for a player that stands over 7-feet tall and who possesses a wingspan knocking on the door of 8-feet.
Worryingly, his ability to get to the free throw line has almost dissipated entirely. Bamba has attempted only 12 shots from the charity stripe in 22 games this season, a paltry free-throw rate of just .092. This was hardly a strength of his game in 2018/19 (.259), but it’s still a calamitous decline. He’s attempted so few it’s basically not worth talking about his free-throw percentage of 58.3%.
There is a clear positive, though: Bamba’s three point accuracy is up significantly. He’s been much more willing to fire from deep this season, having raised his attempts per game to 2.0 from 1.5, with the long ball accounting for 38.1% of his entire shot profile (up from 28.8% as a rookie). Most pleasingly, he’s knocking these in at a clip of 35.6%, a figure around league-average that represents a vast improvement over his average of 30% last season.
Elsewhere, advanced metrics have generally nice things to say about Bamba’s defensive impact in 2019/20. He’s nudged his block rate up to 8.3% of possessions, and he’s now snagging 27.3% of all available defensive rebounds when he’s on the court. This figure is 3.4 percentage points higher than his rate as a rookie, a number which speaks to better positioning and court awareness. Defensive box plus/minus has his contributions ranked at a positive 3.4 points per-100 possessions, while he’s already halfway to matching his defensive win shares total from last season in less minutes.
However, some of the other catch-all metrics are less enthused about the second-year center’s performance. PER places him below both his rookie contributions and league average with a figure of 11.5. His overall box plus/minus rates as -2.8 points per-100 possessions (thanks to a ghastly offensive box plus/minus figure of -6.2), while VORP -- Value Over Replacement Player -- has him pegged as -0.1 contributor in this regard. All of these are significant dips when compared to his rookie totals.
So while there are bright spots in Bamba’s statistical body of work, the numbers don’t paint an overwhelmingly positive picture. He couldn’t possibly be experiencing a moment of growth, could he?
The Eye Test
Bamba started the season slowly, a fact that soon raised familiar questions about his place in the rotation. After Vooch went down with an injury it was Birch who leapfrogged him into the starting position, a move made by Steve Clifford to avoid overwhelming the young center. It has seemingly worked.
It was immediately after the Vucevic injury that Bamba began to show some real flashes. He was solid in over 21 minutes of court time against the Pacers, before turning in arguably the best extended sequence of his professional career in the next game against the Pistons. He keyed a 15-3 first-quarter closing run for the Magic, racking up 4 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals during the six minute burst. He was alert and energetic on defense, decisive and swift on offense. When defending he correctly anticipated danger before it occurred, rotating cleanly and locking down the lane. On offense he would push up the floor and force the opposing defense to collapse by rim-running with purpose. The game flowed around his contributions at both ends.
The regular drip feed of eye-catching performances has continued since then. Bamba had a preposterous shooting night in his next outing, recording a perfect 5 of 5 from deep against the Cavs as he continuously launched without hesitation from beyond the arc as the trail man. Against the Suns he had a 10 point, 11 rebound double-double -- with 4 blocks for good measure! -- in just 18 minutes of action. He was a team-best +16 when Cleveland were again up next. And, of course, there was the monstrous block on a LeBron dunk attempt when the Lakers were in town just last night.
There is one set of numbers that was deliberately left out during the previous discussion, because it feels like it might be the most instructive when trying to quantify Bamba’s progress as a sophomore: raw plus/minus. Before yesterday’s game against the Lakers, Orlando were perfectly even in the minutes that he had played this season, with an even split of 10 games in which he has finished with a positive plus/minus and 10 with a negative plus/minus (there is also one that he finished at 0). In the 10 positively ranked games the Magic outscored opponents by 68 points during his time on the court; in the 10 negatively ranked games the deficit in Bamba’s minutes was also 68. The ledger was clean.
This is a huge upgrade on last season, when Bamba would regularly feature in bench units that were clearly outpaced by their direct opponents. The improvement is also immediately evident in his net rating (arrived at by measuring the gap between his individual offensive and defensive ratings): this metric ranks him as a slight negative in his time on the court, with a figure of -1.2 points per 100 possessions. However, this is a whopping improvement of over 13 points when compared to his nightmare-inducing number of -14.9 from 2018/19. He no longer immediately kills the team just with his presence.
Bamba still has a way to go. The numbers clearly demonstrate that there’s room left for improvement, as do games like his vanishing act against the rampaging Bucks. It’s largely evident that he’s not yet ready for anything more than a lightly-sheltered reserve role.
What is also evident, however, is the real progress he’s making. Bamba has gone from a player who basically couldn’t be trusted on the court in any capacity, to one who is routinely providing meaningful production and even occasionally making game-altering contributions. The pendulum of thought has swung from worries about bust status back to the height of his potential ceiling.
Orlando’s young center has shown a lot during these last three weeks. Much more is still expected. But, for now, the journey is both headed in the right direction and gathering momentum. Bamba might yet be the real deal.