Orlando Magic: Evaluating Mohamed Bamba’s rookie season

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Lost in the excitement of the Orlando Magic surpassing expectations was how rookie Mohamed Bamba got on before injury. Here’s a look at his rookie year.

It’s easy to forget now, what with the Orlando Magic surpassing expectations and going from a lottery outfit to one closer to the middle of the pack, that this playoff team had a top-six pick in its rotation to begin the season.

Center Mohamed Bamba being selected last summer by a front office intent on filling out the rotation with young and athletic big men who can play across multiple frontcourt positions — a bit like a less successful (for now) version of what general manager John Hammond was able to achieve during his time with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Coupled with forward Jonathan Isaac, who was taken the previous draft by the same front office at the same spot, the Magic looked like they had found a young core that was much more capable of existing in the NBA as it is constructed today — position-less basketball where 3-point shooting is valued over all else.

Bamba would only play in 47 games, however, starting a single one of those, before being lost for the season with a stress fracture of his left tibia. This makes the sample size when evaluating him smaller, and in fact, Bamba going down may have been one of the contributing factors in the Magic going from lottery-bound to the postseason in a couple of months.

Beginning with his impact on the court, it was clear from as far back as NBA Summer League that Bamba could one day be a difference-maker on the defensive end. It was his partnership with Isaac that had fans dreaming of a top-five defensive team that could smoother opponents with their length all over the court.

(Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Instead, the Magic managed to finished eighth in this category (with a rating of 107.5), largely without Bamba. This was to be expected, however, since few players come in ready to dominate on that end of the court. Bamba was exactly as advertised for most of his games defensively, as a rookie who struggled to adapt to the pace and bigger bodies in the NBA.

The Magic had a rating of 108.3 when Bamba was on the court, which is still solid given how green he was to the professional game. Stretched over a season, this number would have ranked 11th, just ahead of the Golden State Warriors at 108.5. Bamba doesn’t deserve all of the credit for that number being as impressive as it is, but being the defensive anchor on the court, no matter who he was playing with, was his job.

So it is fair to say that in the limited time he played, despite obvious deficiencies, he was already making a difference. This, despite getting beaten around the basket by veteran players with crafty moves, bullied by bigger guys who knew how to get to their spots and getting dragged from the paint and lost at sea when opponents went at him.

This is hugely promising for the future, because if Bamba’s raw enthusiasm and desire to be a factor defensively — two traits he definitely showed — can allow him to post a rating like this, then there’s little doubt he is going to become hugely valuable on that end before long as he gets stronger — so much so that he may be able to negate the potential departure of Khem Birch.

Last season, the play of both Bamba and Birch were linked in a number of ways, so it is only fitting that Birch gets brought up here too. Between these two players, and All-Star Nikola Vucevic, there is really only space of two of these guys on the roster heading into next season. Bamba is going nowhere, and rightly so.

Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent, and while he is the Magic’s best player right now, will only be brought back if the price is right. Birch was a revelation for the team, and you could make the case he was their X-factor during the campaign, but he could find himself as the odd man out. The Magic had a brilliant defensive rating of 102 when Birch was on the court.

If Vucevic is brought back it will mean Birch will sadly have to go, but we’ve seen enough from Bamba to believe that, as a backup initially, he can get close to being the defensive presence that Birch was off the bench this season. The flip side of that, however, is that there’s no doubt when Bamba went down injured and Birch took his minutes, the organization’s fortunes began to turn around.

They went from 11 games under .500 to the playoffs, and Birch’s tireless engine off the bench was a huge reason for this. No matter what happens, he is now a cult hero in Orlando because of what he brought to the team.

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Offensively, it’s a different story for Bamba, who had his struggles. He was shown to be capable of knocking down 3-point looks in college, which was hugely exciting for how he could impact this team. Bamba ended his season shooting 30 percent from deep, connecting on 21 of his 70 attempts.

That’s not a great number, but enough to work with moving forward. Each shot he made from this range bringing a unique cheer from Magic fans. If Bamba can get that percentage closer to 35 percent next season, coupled with the breakout play of Isaac, then this franchise will have a special combination of young talent brewing.

During his rookie season, however, the offensive rating of 93.1 the Magic had when Bamba was on the court was miles below the 108.1 they averaged for the season. Given that they didn’t rank highly in this category anyway (they finished 22nd), that looks even worse for the rookie. He was essentially a non-factor on this end, save for the occasional made 3-pointer, as he averaged 6.2 points per game.

Player Efficiency Rating (league average is 15) can act as a good barometer of success, and Bamba posted a surprising 14.9 in this category. It might not look like much, but if you consider Vucevic went from having the ninth-highest PER in the league during the regular season (25.5) to dropping all the way to 10.2 in the playoffs, it shows that Bamba at least had league-average consistency throughout his time on the court.

Against other rookies, Bamba was able to hold his own in some categories too. He finished the regular season sixth in rebounding (5.0 per contest), despite finishing 27th among all rookies in minutes per game (16.3). Per 48 minutes, Bamba ranked third with 14.6, behind only Mitchell Robinson and Deandre Ayton.

Bamba also ranked third in blocks with 1.36 per game, behind Jaren Jackson Jr. (1.41) and Robinson (2.44), who may be the most tenacious rookie shot-blocker ever. These were the areas Bamba was expected to make a difference, and against the players in his class, he stacked up well. This bodes well for the future.

In the end, Mohamed Bamba’s injury was the blessing in disguise the Orlando Magic needed to shift more into a win-now mode. There’s no question head coach Steve Clifford will be able to work wonders defensively with him as time goes by, and as he improves, so too will the team.

The organization is shifting from a bottom-feeder to middle-of-the-pack hopeful, and we saw enough in Bamba’s limited rookie run to believe that next season he can help push this team to the next level. It should start off the bench, but by year’s end if he can make a leap similar to Isaac, then he could be looking to start before long (depending on what other guys are on the roster).

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It was a quiet, yet mostly successful first campaign for Bamba. If he’s able to spend him time off the court bulking up and become a more consistent shooter, while also sharpening his defensive IQ, then he could be the breakout player for the Magic next season in a different, yet more important way than that of Khem Birch.