The Orlando Magic surged to the finish line in 2019 with the NBA’s fifth-best defensive rating (107.0) and seventh-best net rating overall (5.0) by winning 22 of their last 31 games.
They even snuck past the Toronto Raptors in game one of the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs promising the development and culture that head coach Steve Clifford had instilled all season long continued to pay off.
There’s just one problem. Mo Bamba wasn’t there for any of it.
Mo Bamba was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right tibia on February 5th and his shelving directly coincided with the Magic’s late season rise. Bamba critics will be quick to point out Bamba’s on/off numbers and they certainly make for problematic digestion. Bamba’s negative 18.7 per 100 possessions was by far the worst on the Magic in 2019. Granted he had some help, as he would regularly share the floor with Jerian Grant (negative 9.9) and Jonathon Simmons (negative 9.2) each of whom would be benched or traded in ensuing weeks.
Bamba’s second most frequent five man combination (Grant - Ross - Simmons - Gordon - Bamba) yielded a horrid negative 32.4 per 100 possessions!
Now, after missing the final 30 games and five playoff appearances, Bamba is relishing his opportunity to demonstrate improvement on the hardwoods of UNLV.
“You can’t understand how much (I missed basketball),’’ Bamba told John Denton. “There were a bunch of different points out there (during Tuesday’s summer league practice) where I found myself just smiling because I’m back in the swing of things.’’
Bamba certainly showed flashes in 2019 in his limited opportunities scoring in double-digits on seven opportunities of 47 while failing to break 26 minutes played even once. His opening night breakout performance may stand out above the rest.
Mo Bamba’s first NBA game against the Heat he goes 6/8 from the field 1/2 from three, 7 rebs, and 2blks in 25 minutes Magic win. He doesn’t play another 25 minute game until 29 games later. The kid never got a rhythm throughout the whole season. I watched with my own eyes. #Yoda pic.twitter.com/I0ZWhi0MFS— Rashad Phillips (@RP3natural) June 30, 2019
Bamba has the finesse to suit the NBA’s modern big man but he still lacks the physicality as a low-post defender and aggressor. The Magic attempted to play Bamba and All-Star big man, Nikola Vucevic together at times, which ended as you might expect. Due to their limitations as a pair, the two yielded disastrous results on the floor together in their time together making Bamba’s role with the Magic all the more cumbersome.
“More proof of this misfit is in the limited time Bamba and Vucevic have played together,” Jeffrey Shao of PerSources.com wrote. “In 36 minutes, they have an offensive rating of 75.6 and a defensive rating of 118.0. That’s a net rating of -42.4. The two likely won’t ever be able to share the court, and if the Magic are truly invested in Bamba, Vucevic will have to go.”
At 7’0, Bamba is a natural center but his slight frame (221 pounds) made bodying up the Joel Embiid’s of the NBA a burdensome proposition to be sure.
The 76ers' arena played the song "Mo Bamba" after Joel Embiid scored on the rookie pic.twitter.com/g5DHxnHuRf— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) October 21, 2018
Bamba took his physicality to heart over the offseason putting on 20 pounds. But how would his newly formed frame react to the dramatic change?
“One thing that I was, not worried about, but was conscious about was, `How am I going to be able to move 20 pounds heavier?’ I think it’s pretty good and I’m doing pretty well,’’ Bamba continued to Denton. “I’m roughly 240 (pounds) now and honestly it feels good to play at this weight because your bumps are more (effective) and you’re getting to spots easier. Trust me, there’s still a ways to go, but it feels good.’’
He’ll need every pound of it against the Julius Randles, Zion Williamsons and Embiids the NBA has to throw at him but size won’t be enough. It will take a tenacity and relentless motor to overcome an opponent night in and night out over the course of an 82 game season but summer league Head Coach Pat Delany seems to think the former Longhorn is up to the task in what will be his second NBA season.
“Overall, his energy level is much better than it had been,” Delany told Denton. “We haven’t seen him in live action in quite a while, but there were some contact rebounds and traffic rebounds that he made today and that will get better and better the more he plays. He’ll just keep going from here.’’
The Orlando Magic chose to bring back Nikola Vucevic on an expensive contract that should see him seated next to Bamba over the entirety of his rookie contract possibly limiting his nightly allotment to whatever minutes Vucevic uses for refreshment. Vucevic averaged 31.4 minutes per game in 2018-19 begging the question:
Will Bamba and Vucevic ever be able to play together? Will Bamba only see 16.6 minutes per game over the next four seasons barring injury?
If Bamba is to earn more minutes, impressing the Magic coaching staff starts right now at Las Vegas summer league where the NBA’s gaze has shifted from the feel-good pairing of Jonathan Isaac and Bamba and 2018 to the upstart New Orleans Pelicans (Zion - Jaxson Hayes - Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Frank Jackson), Atlanta Hawks (De’Andre Hunter - Cam Reddish) and the New York Knicks (Mitchell Robinson - R.J. Barrett).
And make no mistake, the Magic need Bamba to play like he deserves more minutes. The Magic have hit their proverbial ceiling with the free agent returns of Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic coupled with perimeter defender and rebounding extraordinaire, Al Farouq-Aminu. Aminu and Bamba could make for the proper defensive pairing and Aminu’s low-post propensity could give Bamba room to patrol the perimeter where his jump shot can be so deadly.
But regardless of pairings and lineup tinkerings, the expectations have and should grow heading into his sophomore season. The Magic have to improve within due to their salary limitations and will need steady progress from their developing core of Aaron Gordon, Isaac and Bamba.
As it stands now, the city of Las Vegas doesn’t have much faith despite the Magic’s promising finishing giving them just +15000 title odds, good for 22nd in the NBA according to TopBet.eu.
Step one of changing those odds will involve Bamba taking summer league by storm with a roster barren of some of the more exciting names heading into this weekend.
Here is the Orlando Magic's 2019 summer league roster: pic.twitter.com/3YVZoitosm— Josh Robbins (@JoshuaBRobbins) June 25, 2019
He will get multiple opportunities to shine this weekend as Jarrett Allen promises an appearance for the Brooklyn Nets among others.
For the most diehard of Magic fans, here are the available times to catch the boys in pinstripes this upcoming weekend including opening night on NBA TV.
July 5 - Orlando vs. San Antonio 8:00 p.m. 11:00 p.m. Cox NBA TV
July 7 - Denver vs. Orlando 3:00 p.m. 6:00 p.m. Cox NBATV
July 9 - Miami vs. Orlando 1:00 p.m. 4:00 p.m. Cox ESPN2
July 10 - Orlando vs. Brooklyn 2:30 p.m. 5:30 p.m. Thomas and Mack ESPNU
For more on the Orlando Magic, check out our podcast,”Do You Believe in Magic,” featuring Zach Oliver, Aaron Goldstone, Will Ogburn and Cory Hutson.
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