My Biggest Scouting Misses: Mo Bamba
"Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."
For scouts, looking at their pas evaluations is essential practice. Prospect grading is some combination of art, science, research and luck. The luck aspect can always factor in, where externalities or unforeseen developments derail or stymie a player's growth. Still, relying on luck is bad practice, especially when trying to come up with guidelines for how to engage on the science and research aspect. You either win or you learn, so let's look back and learn.
Just as the political winds shift every four-to-eight years, the basketball landscape does as well. Innovations, new stylistic trends and dynastic teams merit a change to team-building so that franchises stay ahead of the curve. Sometimes that means evaluating a prospect just as the curve is changing, anticipating what the next paradigm-altering techniques are so that no you can be the first team to fully embrace it.
Other times, the opposite occurs. A great player gets left behind on the trend, drafted for the skills they possess while quickly falling back from the pack as those traits become outdated.
Mo Bamba is my biggest scouting failure of the seven years I have been scouting NBA prospects. The strikeout on my end is due, largely, to the changing trends of the league. In 2018, when Bamba was due to be drafted, he stood atop my draft boards, one spot ahead of Luke Doncic and two of Trae Young. The evaluations of the others were consistent: both would be multi-time All-Stars and foundational pieces for their franchise.
Bamba, my argument went, would be just as foundational and impactful. He was a 7'1" shot blocker with a nearly 7'10" wingspan. He swatted 3.7 shots a game, made 14 treys, shot over 60% inside the line and a double-double in half his outings. He looked dominant defensively while possessing a tantalizing trait on offense with his shooting. He would be Rudy Gobert, 2018 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, with a jump shot.
Only two years into his career, its unfair to call Bamba a bust. The issue came in my gross misevaluation of how to properly rate his skills. The game shifted away from one-dimensional rim protectors rather quickly; defensive versatility is en vogue from bigs as much as their anchoring dominance. Gobert struggled in series against the Houston Rockets or Denver Nuggets, two innovative offensive groups, despite being a First-Team All-Defense selection four consecutive years. Big men worth high picks in today's draft landscape need to be able to solve those issues, particularly concerning mobility. There was no way anyone scouting Bamba at Texas would have seen him and said "switchable upside" or "would be fine guarding a team that plays five guards".
But in looking back at Bamba, there are plenty of areas he's failed to live up to the hype. From a statistical standpoint, his NBA career has been really mundane, even against immobile big men. He's shot 54 percent from the interior, a woeful mark for someone of his size. His absurd 13.1% block rate has trickled down to 8% in the hyperathletic NBA. The per 100-possession stats show how increasing his 3-point rate (from 19% to 33.5%) has altered his production:
Texas: 25.5 PTS, 20.8 REB, 7.3 BLK, 27.5% 3FG, 7.8 FTA (68.1%), 1.0 AST, 3.0 TO, 12.2 ORB rate
Orlando: 18.5 PTS, 15.9 REB, 4.5 BLK, 32.8% 3FG, 3.2 FTA (62.4%), 2.4 AST, 2.5 TO, 10.5 ORB rate
Bamba's attempts to tailor his offensive game to the NBA have seen tradeoffs in where his production comes from. His scoring and rebounding numbers dip (particularly offensive rebounding) as he spends more time on the perimeter. The increases have come from more consistent 3-point shooting (though not enough to make him elite) and better assist-turnover numbers.
So where were the warning signs about Bamba's biggest NBA weaknesses? Could he pan out differently if he didn't wind up in Orlando, where his usage was far different than at Texas?
Let's start with the biggest glaring issue at the NBA level: Bamba is not a good interior finisher.
While at Texas, Bamba was a very average post-up threat. Like most freshman bigs with insane size, he wasn't well-built. The frame was a concern in that it might take time for him to gain weight and strength for the pros. His high center of gravity and thin legs allowed him to get pushed off spots and ridden underneath when he'd try to engage in a post move. Defenders would successful (and legally) get into his legs and for him to rely on hook shots or face-up moves.
The lack of a left hand on post-up finishes was also evident. Bamba wasn't comfortable going to both shoulders. He didn't have many counter moves for when forced to go left. The assertion that he was long enough to get shots off anyway was reliant on his touch being excellent; its proven not to be the case.
Because Bamba is so tall, many of his hook shots come from a position near-level to the rim. He elevates on his release and holds the ball so high that touch is a hard thing to find at that altitude. Think of why big men can often struggle from the free throw line. Their hands are large, so slight movements to their fingers (in particular thumb) can change the ball's trajectory. In addition, they tend to lose the soft bounce gained by arch on the shot; their starting point is too high to rainbow it up.
Many of Bamba's misses with the Magic have been similarly problematic, and were somewhat overlooked by my evaluation. Even though he's larger and has size advantages, he gets pushed far out and off-balance on his post-up attempts. The idea behind Bamba isn't that he should be a high-usage post player: he only took 12 shots in the post this year, and it's not an emphatic part of an NBA offense. Still, centers need to be able to create an advantage when they get little guys on switches and convert those bunnies. Bamba isn't, getting blown over like a palm tree in the wind whenever a sturdy guard or wing digs under his roots.
Bamba got 26.7% of his usage from post-ups at Texas, according to Synergy Sports Tech. Predicting a drop in frequency was wise, knowing the NBA was trending away from back-to-basket play and knowing nearly every NBA big was thrown the ball down lot routinely in college. Unless a player is Joel Embiid or Enes Kanter-like dependent on the low block for their offense, I'm not spending too much time fretting about mundane production. In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the lower body mechanics that come with his high center of gravity and how, in a super physical league, that might hinder portions of his game.
As a finisher, Bamba converted on 74.5 percent of his non post-up shots at the rim. That's no only an absurd rate, but it came on over 100 attempts. His crashing of the offensive glass, where he got roughly 30 percent of his points from, had a lot to do with that. While we knew modern NBA usage would drag those numbers down, he was only at 58 percent at the rim this year.
More fascinating is the work done on pick-and-roll finishing. Bamba had subpar hands when trying to collect pocket passes. He wasn't an inefficient finisher by any means, but if a pass wasn't thrown above his waist, he'd struggle to catch it. His footwork was solid, he could gather himself for a finish and wasn't given clean looks every time at the basket, requiring more than just his elite length to get a bucket.
Ball screens weren't frequent in the offense at Texas. Bamba set many alley screens in Horns actions, which frequently led him to pick-and-pop to the top of the key. He was only 4-for-20 on pick and pop treys -- a poor number and perhaps a little overambitious to look at and expect high-caliber 3-point shooting. The theory was, even though Bamba wasn't making a ton, the mechanics were great and his comfort on the perimeter was half the battle. Many of his misses barely rattled in-and-out. If two of his four rattlers fall, he's at 30 percent, and this is a non-issue. Projecting him as a strong shooter wasn't a mistake. He's still very good for someone his size.
The biggest area I overlooked wasn't his lack of pick-and-pop shooting and putting so much stock in that number rising to an elite level. It was not being concerned by the lack of finishing volume as a roller, not a popper, after setting a screen.
Bamba's usage at Texas appeared to be pop-heavy because of what I believed was his elite strength as a pick-and-pop 5 and the juggernaut element it added to the team's offense. Instead, retrospect appears to show that the reason Texas kept him away from there was because it was not a strength. Bamba's finishing at the rim off the pick-and-roll was 42.3 percent (11-26), league-worst among players with at least 20 attempts.
A lot of those same issues at Texas, though demonstrate in only minor ways, propped up in Orlando. He's not really strong with his takeoff when catching off pocket passes -- his base and center of gravity don't lend themselves well to explosion when he needs to lower his shoulder for a catch. He still hasn't added the strength needed to bounce off and handle contact from bigs, further limiting his explosion. Some shots get blocked as a result of both, and his adjustment has been to rely more on fadeaways and touch than gathering off a square foundation and powering through.
Offensively, this remains the largest handicap towards Bamba taking the next step. He can continue to improve his 3-point stroke and get more efficient on pick-and-pops (he was only 29.3 percent from there on catch-and-shoots this year) and raise that number higher. But Bamba already gets 65 percent of his roll-man usage from popping. In order to offset the lack of finishing, he'd need to be at around 45 percent from 3 on pops and an elite Kristaps Porzingis-like threat. He has to either become truly elite in one area or great in both.
How do you work on something like this, where his body type and lack of lower body explosive upside is so severely handicapped? You can mask it, through higher pop usage or empty-side pick-and-rolls where he can sky for more alley oops. Or you can keep repping it to death with low-feed passes in traffic, consistent strength regimen work and hope that time brings physical maturation. Bamba is only 22 years old; time can bring positive changes, though it's clear he'll never catch up to where Doncic and Trae are, as well as the first big selected in that draft class, DeAndre Ayton.
While Bamba remains below-average offensively, there are plenty of opportunities for him to make up for that on defense. When thinking back to who I thought Bamba would be on this end of the floor, he's on a positive trajectory to get fairly close. Most bigs need a few years to reach potency as a rim protector and gain polish in Drop pick-and-roll coverage.
With the Magic, Bamba is a really patient 1v1 defender on the interior. Post-ups against him are wildly ineffective (opponents shot 27.8 percent there) as most guys who are smaller shoot the ball right into his hands. To avoid that, most opponents take tons of fadeaways in an attempt to moonshot over the top. That in itself gets the job done from a defensive standpoint.
On pick-and-rolls this season, Bamba allowed only 23-60 (38.3%) at the basket - an elite rate. There's still no way to quantify the deterrent factor, either, where Bamba's physical intimidation and strong angles discourage drivers from even taking a shot.
What Bamba does well is use verticality and his length to challenge at the basket. He's prone to fly towards blocks on occasion, but is becoming much more reliable and disciplined. He drops far below ball screens and stands atop the arc, waiting for guys to drive at him. His angles in ice coverage are solid and patient. The length, his unteachable trait which makes him stand out defensively, is used so well, just throwing his arms up being big.
Watch enough Bamba possessions and you'll see a recurring theme: he defends well initially, but his man is a constant offensive rebounding threat. He's not quite quick-twitch enough to fulfill both roles, patrolling the paint to contest a shot and negating his man. Orlando has guards who lack physicality who get abused when trying to box out (sorry, DJ Augustin and Evan Fournier) and because Bamba is more of a "shoot into me" protector than a violent swatter, second-chance points fall into the laps of screeners.
How much of that is on Bamba to correct and be held accountable for? I'm honestly not sure. From a team defense standpoint, it matters, and as a rim protector, Bamba will be judged based on the effectiveness of his group as a whole when he's on the floor. It's not seemingly as large of an issue with Nikola Vucevic, so there might be something there.
Regardless of fault, there aren't many other options for how to defend with Bamba. He's not quick enough for switches and would struggle to recover in aggressive coverages. He doesn't even try to close out to pick-and-pop shooters, instead daring them to shoot and not giving them the potential to drive past him. The Magic are committed to the severe drops and ice coverages that keep him challenging inside five feet, so they must figure out the rebounding problems when he's in.
Here's an incredible stat from Bamba's career, though: roll men took ZERO shots against him out of ball screens near the rim. Zero. In two years. His angles and length is not just a deterrent for ball handlers, but he does not let them involve teammates off the roll. It's an absurd Synergy metric and one I'll be surprised to be true.
What did he show at Texas to prove this could be the type of Bamba we'd get in the pros? Quite a bit, actually. Bamba's shot blocking was dominant in Austin, and the main reason the Rudy Gobert comparisons flowed so naturally from my tongue. He was a natural, simultaneously prodigious with angles and elite enough vertically to get to any ball. The profile didn't fail us there:
Here's the silliest part in looking back at my rankings. A large part of the reason Bamba ended up being number one was because, in large part, I wanted him to be a 3-point shooting Rudy Gobert. I wanted to see that in the league, so I believed he was the chance to be it and couldn't remove my fixation from that potential. It was less about how likely he was to be that and more about "holy shit, if he can actually become it, its over." More consideration should have been given to how difficult that path would be and, if he didn't get there, what type of impact he would have. Doncic and Young, even if they don't get much better from where they are in Year 2 of their professional careers, are still more impactful than Bamba who only hits 70% of his potential.
The personality traits were there. I remember seeing Bamba on AAU and summer circuits flash amazing ball handling potential. He was massive, well-spoken and kind, had gushing personality reviews and played for an NBA factory at Westtown. You can hear all the cries about "all NBA players have amazing skills that don't translate", but until you see it in-person what an NBA guy can do against amateur competitions and walk yourself off that cliff, you can think to yourself that this particular guy's skill is so good that he'll show it. You can heed many warnings about "not falling in love with the person over the player", but until you get burned by it, you can't help it.
In summary, there are a few major takeaways from the Bamba failure I'll continue to impart upon draft prospect evaluation:
I'm still optimistic that Bamba can become an above-average starting 5 in this league. He's shown enough defensively in the first two years in Orlando that a team who needs a Drop coverage 5 can do far worse with him as the anchor. His lack of finishing at the rim, or elite 3-point shooting, makes it tough to justify playing him for long stretches. His physical restraints are in need of remedy.
In looking back at my board, I'd have been wiser to slot Bamba in third. What he demonstrated at Texas was still tantalizing enough, in my view, to warrant a high pick. I can still justify having him at that position, ahead of guys like Michael Porter Jr. (4th), DeAndre Ayton (5th), Jaren Jackson Jr. (7th) or Marvin Bagley (11th) based on what he showed at Texas and how that can still be translated to the rest of his NBA career. Putting him above Doncic and Trae Young was a huge mistake, and one I'll own and attempt to learn from.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD)