Mohamed Bamba is among the five or six guys who could go first overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, and his case is arguably the most fascinating.
Few players in basketball are built like Mohamed Bamba. Hailing from Harlem and a product of the Westtown School in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the seven-foot 19-year-old has emerged as one of college basketball’s most fearsome defenders. He became an internet sensation thanks to humiliating dunks and jaw-dropping blocks that were made possible not only because of his size but also his tremendous length. It serves as the perfect complement to his stature. The span from fingertip to fingertip is seven-feet, nine-inches — that’s longer than Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert and Chris Brown’s “Heartbreak on a Full Moon.”
Almost instantly, that physical profile projects Mohamed Bamba as an elite defender at the next level. Through 20 college games, those speculations are gaining reinforcement, and he ranks among the NCAA’s best in a slew of defensive categories:
- Blocks – 86, first
- Blocks Per Game – 4.3, second
- Block Percentage – 15.3, second
- Defensive Rating – 83.7, fourth
- Defensive Win Shares – 1.9, fifth
- Defensive Box Plus/Minus – 10.3, sixth
At the time of this writing, Bamba has had just three games this year with fewer than four blocks, and his high is eight against Kansas on Dec. 29. We haven’t seen a freshman protect the rim with this much ardency since Nerlens Noel and Chris Obekpa in the 2012-13 season. Those two averaged 4.4 and 4.0 blocks, respectively. Bamba is on pace to join the exclusive list those men are apart of, and he’ll be just the 12th freshman since 1993 to average at least four rejections a night, joining the likes of Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Emeka Okafor.
The numbers are outstanding, but the tape is where the conversation to go first overall is justified. You won’t, however, see many mock drafts where Bamba’s the first name off the board. Sports Illustrated put him at fourth overall; The Ringer has him going fifth, and CBS Sports and Bleacher Report placed him at sixth and seventh, respectively. Falling into the mid-lottery is a testament to the depth of the class rather than an indictment on Bamba’s play.
Upon scouring the footage of the player who Bill Self said “could’ve blocked the sun,” you notice that his defensive instincts are top-notch. Mohamed Bamba understands the basics of help and rotating efficiently, and he’s such a supreme athlete that he’s able to recover if he’s a step late. Moreover, playing in a conference like the Big 12 means that there’s going to be elite competition night in and night out, and a host of guys in that division possess elite levels of explosiveness.
Once a prospect displays the IQ, it’s vital to make sure they utilize it properly. Players with Bamba’s archetype become dynamic rim protectors because they master one fundamental skill: timing. The most exceptional shot blockers in history, dating back to the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, learned the opportune time to jump. And Bamba is on that path. That’s a trait that doesn’t show up in the box score and is only noticeable when watching the film.
With young players, it’s usual to see them be over aggressive on defense. Even seasoned swat masters sometimes get a little too jumpy when their opponents attack the basket. Because of that, more fouls are going to be doled out to that player. But having a ratio that favors blocks is always eye-catching. In Hakeem Olajuwon’s three years at the University of Houston, he averaged 4.5 blocks and 3.2 fouls; David Robinson was 4.1 to 2.8. Bamba, thus far, is picking up just 2.8 fouls per game.
The number of personals is likely to go up during his early seasons in the league because Bamba will have to take time to adjust to the pro game. As stellar as he is now, the NBA is just different. Players are bigger and more explosive, but there’s not much reason to worry because he has a solid foundation in place. On top of being able to bang with bigs on the block, Bamba has shown scouts that he’s capable of switching and defending the pick-and-roll — in today’s landscape, that’s vital for forwards and centers, even more so for potential franchise cornerstones.
Against Duke in the PK80 tournament, there was a play early in the game where Mohamed Bamba switched onto Trevon Duval. The 6-3 Duval became a hoop mixtape legend thanks to nuclear athleticism. He’s a player who can blow by almost anybody, but Bamba did an excellent job of moving his feet and staying on Duval’s hip. He was unable to get the step. Bamba then funneled Duval toward the baseline and extended his arms to make the freshman guard second-guess his attack on the basket. The result was a pass to Grayson Allen in the corner, who hoisted up a lightly-contested three.
It’ll be fascinating to see how long it takes for Bamba to be comfortable switching onto NBA guards. The likelihood of him containing them every possession is slim, but that size and length will undoubtedly be bothersome.
The defensive upside of Mohamed Bamba is limitless. And I didn’t even touch on how he’s a monster on the glass. He’s got everything a coach wants in a defensive anchor. However, there’s still a hurricane of questions centered on offense, and that’s where Bamba’s case lacks when compared to his peers. There have been flashes on that end, but the organization who picks him will understand it’s going to take even more time for his repertoire to develop fully.
Having an offensive liability in the frontcourt is something that only the Golden State Warriors can get away with. Bamba is not that, so don’t worry. He averages 13.1 points a night and makes a staggering 78.0 percent of his shots at the rim according to Hoop-Math.com. At this point, catching alley-oops and securing putbacks are the only consistent pieces of Bamba’s offense. He does both with radical efficiency, but his smooth shooting motion can lead to so many more things.
In eight conference games, Bamba’s 6-of-17 from the three-point line. The sample size is small, but defenses must respect a 35 percent shooter who can cash in at least one triple a night. That could be the next part of his game that develops, but polishing two or three moves in the post wouldn’t hurt. We’ve seen a few jump hooks sprinkled in here and there, and that’s something that would be nearly unblockable because of Bamba’s go-go-gadget arms. He would then need just one or two countermoves.
It’s irrational to draw comparisons so early, but there’s no limit on what Bamba could become on offense because we’ve seen Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis transform into multi-faceted scorers who give out 25 points a night in their sleep.
The final and arguably most impressive part of Mohamed Bamba’s offense is that he isn’t a weak free throw shooter. His mark is 67.1 percent, which is respectable for a big. No coach is going to have his team hack-a-player that converts on two-thirds of their foul shots. His nearly flawless form has much to do with that, as there’s no inconsistent release point that the team has to worry about, and he’s already got the confidence that he can step to the line and hit two free throws.
In a perfect world, the Dallas Mavericks wind up with Bamba. He fits their vision perfectly. They already have Dennis Smith Jr., and he’s the ideal complement for someone like Bamba: an explosive offensive player who alleviates some pressure. Front offices expect their high-lottery picks to be franchise cornerstones, and defensive-first players don’t have the same control of the game that versatile wings and rangy point guards do.
Mohamed Bamba isn’t likely to be the first overall pick, but anything’s possible. Last season, Markelle Fultz was the best prospect, but Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum were in the same tier. We’ll be having the same conversation in a couple of months. For all the possible number one picks, there are plenty of chances to shine, and the one from Texas will be under the same microscope as Marvin Bagley and Trae Young.
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