Shaka Smart is a believer.
“I just think the exciting thing about Mo is that he has more potential than any of those guys,” Smart said in a May radio appearance.
“He’s got phenomenal upside, and he’s really just scratching the surface of what he can do as a player, particularly on the offensive end. We knew we’d only have him for one year, and I’m just really proud of the growth and progress that he made on and off the court at Texas,” Smart said.
Yet, the physical tools, including that famous 7’10 wingspan, are only a part of what makes Bamba such a special person. He scored a 30 on his ACT, according to Smart, so he possesses exceptional intelligence, but he also has a remarkable level of polish and charisma.
He grew up in Harlem with two older brothers who ran afoul of the law, but became the one who made it out — in many ways, he’s already accomplished the hard part, coming out of it with a perspective on how easy it is to squander talent.
However, beyond any other potential considerations, it’s the immense on-court potential of Bamba that will likely result in a top-five selection on Thursday.
Bamba showed flashes of that potential during his freshman season at Texas — 12.9 points per game, 10.5 rebounds, and 3.7 blocked shots. In January, Bamba started to put everything together, scoring 25 points against Iowa State and 24 points against Ole Miss. He grabbed 29 combined rebounds in those two games and made 12-of-13 free-throw attempts against the Rebels, showing off the upside of his shooting stroke.
Unfortunately, a toe injury sustained in February resulted in Bamba missing three games and playing sparingly in two others. He was never able to regain that top form in a Texas uniform.
The toe is healthy now and Bamba impressed physically at the NBA Draft Combine in early June. Remarkably, his 7’10 wingspan, the longest ever recorded at the Combine, isn’t even the most impressive thing about him physically. That honor goes to a 3.04 three-quarter-court sprint he reportedly recorded at a predraft workout with the Chicago Bulls, faster than Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
Defensively, there aren’t any serious concerns about his potential. As an on-ball defender or in help situations, Bamba used his wingspan to full effect at Texas to terrorize opponents in the paint and make any jump shots taken in his vicinity a questionable decision. He has a natural feel for the timing of blocking shots and gets off the floor quickly due to his athleticism, both attributes that contributed to his 13.2-percent block rate.
The biggest area for improvement is increasing his lower body strength in order to hold his defensive positioning against thicker players.
A requirement as Bamba makes the transition to the NBA will be demonstrating the ability to switch onto any other player on the court. Due to Bamba’s agility, he can defend multiple positions. In pick-and-roll defense, that agility helps him recover into the paint to challenge and block shots.
Bamba’s defensive ability caused Smart to compare him to Rudy Gobert, who has the second-longest wingspan in the NBA and has emerged as the league’s top rim protector.
To truly reach that level, though, Bamba will have to become more physical and consistent boxing out to finish possessions.
Offensively, there are more questions about his game. Bamba only shot 68 percent from the free-throw line and 27.5-percent from beyond the arc, causing concerns about whether he will be able to effectively space the court at the next level. As the game has shifted towards smaller players who can shoot at every position, that’s a virtual requirement. For Bamba to fulfill his prodigious potential, that’s a virtual requirement.
So much of the focus for Bamba during the pre-draft process has been refining his offensive game. During the playoffs, he spent time with 76ers star Joel Embiid, watching film and receiving tips on developing Bamba’s skill set.
The 6’11 forward has also been working out with Embiid’s trainer, Drew Hanlen. In addition to working on low-post and mid-post moves, Bamba has also retooled his jump shot under Hanlen’s tutelage. He’s tweaked his form and focused on getting better arc on his shots, a la Dirk Nowitzki, arguably the gold standard for a sweet-shooting big with an ideal entry angle on the basket.
When Bamba takes the court this fall with the team that selects him in the draft, it will be with an offensive arsenal expanded from his time at Texas. And though it will likely be several years before he starts to maximize that ability on the NBA level, Bamba’s skill and work ethic suggest that he’ll eventually get there.
Of course, there are also questions about Bamba’s motor and how much he loves the game. For athletes, having fun on the court and displaying intelligence off of it often ends up being considered somehow threatening to the personnel departments of professional franchises.
Smart isn’t buying any of it.
“He works hard and he’s a talker on defense,” Smart told The Ringer. “That’s what you want. People who say those things don’t know.”
Smart and Bamba both insist that the talented forward loves the game. Bamba is taking those whispers as a direct challenge to work harder — eight hours a day, six days a week.
And that should make every executive helming a team at the top of draft stop and wonder whether their ultimate legacy will be as the brilliant person who picked Mohamed Bamba or the fool who let him slip to another lucky franchise.