It’s unfortunate that the treasure-hunting roller coaster of business in the NBA often leaves player development in the dust.
A rumor, a ping-pong ball or a phone call can accelerate a franchise’s competitive life cycle out of nowhere. With just about every major leap, however, comes a squeeze, where young players suddenly find their professional lives dramatically altered.
Every fan has a “What if?” story of a player who felt close to figuring things out, but simply ran out of time as the next big move packed him up and sent him away. Maybe it’s the Los Angeles Lakers and Brandon Ingram, or the Lakers and Lonzo Ball, or the Lakers and Josh Hart, or — you get it. My personal wistful regret is the Minnesota Timberwolves dealing specifically with Kris Dunn (along with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, of course) in the 2017 trade that returned Jimmy Butler. Even if the trades and draft picks made sense, we still wish we could have just a small peek at the alternate universe.
It feels like Mo Bamba is about to fall into that category. The 2018 No. 5 pick struggled to find his place in the NBA while wading through myriad injuries over his first few years. Then, this past season, he’s finally started to lay down a pattern of production with his flashes of potential, even as the Orlando Magic languished at the bottom of the league.
The problem: Orlando has the No. 1 pick in a 2022 NBA Draft with three game-changing bigs ranking among the consensus top prospects. Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner and *insert top pick* cannot all share a starting frontcourt now, in three years or in 10 years. Someone is probably getting squeezed out.
According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, Bamba appears to be on the outside looking in. And regretfully, it’s understandable. Wagner had a phenomenal All-Rookie First Team season and Carter appears fully entrenched as a cornerstone big man. Still, Bamba truly took a leap in his own right, and it’s worth reestablishing what makes him such a promising young player.
Bamba appeared in a career-high 71 games and averaged a career-high 25.7 minutes per game in 2021-22. He started 69 of those contests after earning six combined starts across his first three seasons. The availability alone is a major positive; just look at all of the injuries Bamba battled through four years. With the increase in playing time came corresponding career highs in practically every major box-score category. But Bamba’s most notable leap by far came from his deadeye perimeter shooting.
Bamba canned 38.1% of his 4.0 three-pointers per game, including a scorching 44.6% clip after the All-Star break. All of the sustainability indicators are there; Bamba hit 78.1% of his free-throws, improved from the arc as the year went on and provided himself on high volume.
According to Synergy, over 26.6% of Bamba’s offensive plays last year were spot-ups; this could be a simple spaced shot or a pick-and-pop.
Defenses dared Bamba to make them pay because he hadn’t yet in his career, and the 24-year-old fired away. Opponents will likely pay more attention to him next season, but if you were to pair Bamba with scoring guards who can create advantages with his screens from him, he’ll find open shots.
Bamba is a better screener than he gets credit for. The screen-assist stats from this season (1.7 per game) won’t show it because Carter was the chief impediment, but Bamba averaged 3.0 screen assists per game in 2020-21 despite playing just 15.8 minutes per game. He’s not a brick wall, but Bamba has greatly improved his build and strength since entering the league.
As a paint presence, Bamba is essentially a pure finisher at this stage. He made 70.4% of his shots from him in the restricted area, which is fine, but he does n’t create chances on his own and has n’t shown nearly enough as a passer or connector.
Then, you flip to the defensive end and you see why Bamba was so high-regarded before the 2018 draft. He contested over 46.7% of opposing shots at the rim this season, ranking in the 96th percentile at his position, according to The BBall Index. A whopping 29.5% of those contests resulted in blocks (93rd percentile), and opponents shot over 6% worse than expected at the rim when facing him (92nd percentile). Questions still remain about how he guards on the perimeter and how he handles 1-on-1 drives and post-ups. The bottom line is that few intimidate at the rim more than Bamba.
Despite the dissonance on paper, Bamba and Carter fared pretty well as a tandem. Together, they anchored Orlando to the 13th-ranked defense during the regular season. The five-man lineup of Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, Wagner, Carter and Bamba was a plus-5.8 per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Not bad for a lineup that played a lot together on a 22-win squad.
The final pitch for Bamba is that he is an efficient low-usage scorer who you can trust to boost teammates as a screener and cash in on his perimeter and lob chances. He’s not quite an “anchor” yet on defense, but he is a catch. Do teams buy that he can grow as a switching player, and do they buy that he can stay on the floor enough to stack his bright moments into a foundation? Those are the major question marks.
Fortunately, several NBA teams should take interest in a 7-foot center with valuable traits and an untapped ceiling. Bamba is a restricted free agent, which means a pursuing team has to overwhelm Orlando with a contract and, most likely, a trade package. But loads of avenues exist for a deal that benefits Bamba, the Magic and his possible new franchise.
So, let’s look at where Bamba could end up this summer.
The Magic hold all the power at the end of the day. They can match any contract opposing teams try to throw at Bamba, and maybe they want to. Orlando isn’t a likely playoff contender, so why lose a young talent when the current objective is to amass young talent? The guessing game comes down to what the contract extension looks like.
Bamba has the pedigree of a No. 5 overall pick and the trajectory of a sturdy starting center with a concerning injury history and still-unrealized potential. it’s pretty difficult to estimate what his next salary could look like.
YoF (and it’s a big if) I had to compare, the most similar scenario would be the Boston Celtics inking Robert Williams III to a four-year, $48 million deal last summer. Like Bamba, Williams had a prior history of fuels and flashed starter ability. Williams had shown a lot more for a competitive basketball team — but he also did n’t carry the same stature Bamba does. So I’d say those canceled out, and for visualization’s sake, we can estimate his extent of it would look something like $12 million per year.
Should Bamba stay in Orlando, he likely won’t have long as a starter if Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren or Paolo Banchero are waiting in the wings. But he’d absolutely continue as a high-end back big for an Orlando roster that boasted a pretty solid defense last year.
Nic Claxton (restricted free agency), Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge all hit free agency this summer. This is Brooklyn’s chance to mold a center rotation that complements Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons and (most likely?) Kyrie Irving. Those three, plus Bruce Brown (also a free agent), are all excellent playmakers and passers. Bamba would simply be asked to finish his looks from him, be it as a stretch-5 or a lob threat. He’d have no burden to create on offense and could fill similar rim-protecting roles as his predecessors on defense.
How could a trade work? Let’s stick with Bamba’s current salary estimate of $12 million for at least next season. Fanspo’s trade machine says a deal exchanging Bamba for Joe Harris, Kessler Edwards and a future first-round pick works financially.
I think this is a fair starting point. Harris is making just over $18 million for the next two years, but Orlando shouldn’t be concerned with cap space, and I actually love the idea of the Magic adding a movement shooter on the wing. Orlando is going to have a tough defense again next season; this is an easy way to give its slashing guards an outlet.
Bamba is absolutely not Kristaps Porzingis, but he can take on some of the same responsibilities as an above-the-break shooter, screener and rim-protector while playing as a more versatile defensive center than Porzingis has ever been. The Mavericks desperately need size on the glass as well, and Bamba can grab rebounds while fitting into the team’s overall spacing.
Dwight Powell is a solid NBA player. His minutes also decreased in every subsequent playoff series this spring, and he played just 9.8 minutes per game in the Western Conference Finals. Does Bamba have the two-way versatility to stick in these matchups against Golden State Warrior-like squads? It’s difficult to say for certain, but I think he can get there.
Trading Bamba for Powell, Josh Green and/or the No. 26 overall pick works in the trade machine. It would be a complicated move to pull off because Bamba’s restricted free agency begins after draft night, but this would be my guess at the framework.
How does Miami feel about Bam Adebayo as its long-term center? Obviously, he’s a core piece to the overall team, but is he best-equipped anchoring a smaller lineup or working alongside another big man? Bamba might be the ideal test.
Adebayo can operate as his All-Defensive self, taking on any matchup on the floor, while Bamba lurks as a shot-blocker and helper. Then, on offense, Bamba can space for Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. If the move doesn’t work out, Bamba would at least be a significant upgrade over Dewayne Dedmon in a worst-case development scenario.
This deal, like with the Nets, starts with trading an elite movement shooter in Duncan Robinson. The Heat also have the No. 27 overall pick at their disposal and could add another flier prospect like Omer Yurtseven.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The Thunder have an exciting backcourt duo in Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who could both use a pick-and-pop big to height in their impact. OKC does not yet (although the draft could change things) have a certified stopper in the frontcourt. Enter Bamba, who plugs the on-paper hole at center and could reasonably fit alongside any of the top picks in the draft.
With picks and prospects galore, OKC can kind of take this deal in any direction that gets Bamba to the city. Lu Dort and Aaron Wiggins seem to fit some Magic needs at first glance.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
The Trail Blazers surprisingly have oodles of cap space this offseason and a vacant starting center spot with Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency. It’s certainly possible Portland re-signs Nurkic, extends Anfernee Simons and heads on its merry way. But we’ve all expected some roster overhaul, as the franchise tries to throw one last contender together around Damian Lillard. Bamba won’t vault Portland to the playoffs on his own, but he might be a suitable replacement for Nurkic on a manageable contract with room to grow.
Keon Johnson feels like an obvious return target for the Magic as a long, athletic wing with two-way upside. Perhaps the trade conversations start there and include an additional player rotation, plus some draft compensation.
I do ultimately hope that Bamba lands in a situation that is willing to be patient with his development. He’s hit some rotten luck with injuries and deserves an extended chance to shine — whether that’s in Orlando or somewhere else.
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