From the moment he committed to Texas last May, Mohamed Bamba was well aware that his first season with the Longhorns would be his last. Sidelined with five fouls and watching as his lone season as a Longhorn ended with a first round NCAA Tournament exit surely isn’t the finish Bamba envisioned, but that’s the reality Shaka Smart’s club endured to cap a rollercoaster season.
Such an ending — a disappointing one considering Texas owned a 14-point lead over Nevada in the second half — has since sent a sizable share of criticism towards Smart, who’s now 50-50 in three seasons in Austin. However, despite the dark cloud many may believe hovers over the Longhorns basketball program with no brighter days in sight, Bamba, an elite talent who’s experienced a first-hand look at the program-building going on behind the scenes, has a different thought on Texas’ future.
“I can easily see this program heading in that direction, as far as the recruits we have coming in — we have some really good recruits coming in — and just the direction of the program,” Bamba said during his exit press conference of how close Smart is to leading Texas to a deep NCAA Tournament run. “Our coaches are probably some of the hardest-working coaches in the country.”
“I think we’re close. We have a lot of areas to work at, but I think we’re close,” Bamba added. “This program is hungry and I think having that hunger is what will make the difference.”
To satisfy that hunger, Texas will have to do so with a fairly fresh crop of talent. For the second time in just three seasons, Smart’s program has endured a mass exodus — along with Bamba departing for the NBA, Kerwin Roach II will test the waters, and Eric Davis Jr. will pursue a professional future as well, while Jacob Young and James Banks have each elected to transfer.
Bearing in mind that Andrew Jones and Roach’s respective futures at Texas remain up in the air, it’s possible that only five contributors from last season’s roster return — excluding transfer Elijah Long — and Royce Hamm played just 90 minutes throughout his entire freshman campaign. That means for Smart to replenish his roster after losing as few as four contributors and potentially as many as six, the recruiting pipeline will be essential.
To that end, Bamba had a message to top prospects that may be considering a future at Texas.
“If you want to have a great relationship with your coach and you want to be told the truth, yet you don’t want to be babied, I think you should come to Texas.”
After spending the past 11 months in Austin, Bamba has no idea which city he’ll call home next. It could be any number of potential destinations, such as Cleveland, Orlando, Dallas or Atlanta. To an extent, that future is largely out of his control, as the May 15 draft lottery will decide the draft order, and thus, a clearer idea of where Bamba, a projected top five pick, will be headed on June 21.
Where will Bamba be in the meantime?
Although he didn’t provide specifics on where exactly he’d be training for the NBA Draft, Bamba did say, “These next three months I’m basically going to be a caveman and just work.”
“There’s a lot of work to do and I’m kind of happy that there is because that’s where the fun comes in,” Bamba added. “I like exploring what to work on and what to be better at.”
Along with the sheer level of on-court work required to successfully make the transition to the NBA, Bamba has also been putting in work behind the scenes, working with nutritionists, and skill development training specialists, as well as reaching out to numerous NBA players. Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embiid is among those Bamba said he’s spoken to, and did note that he could see himself emulating the first-time All-Star’s game a bit.
“That could be possible,” Bamba said. “I like to sort of mold my own game after myself, but I also like to steal things from different people.”
As far as his own game is concerned, Bamba said he’s focused on further cultivating certain aspects of his game in the coming months; aspects such as adding strength, improving his ball handling, and becoming more consistent with his jump shot.
As is, Bamba’s elite length and rim-protecting prowess — evident by the 7’0 Harlem native averaging 4.8 blocked shots per 40 minutes, finishing No. 2 nationally in blocks per game (3.7) and third nationally in total blocked shots (111) — placed Bamba among the most coveted prospects in his class. If Bamba can develop his offensive game in short order and impress in pre-draft workouts, he doesn’t think becoming the No. 1 overall pick is out of reach.
“Why shouldn’t they?,” Bamba responded when asked why a team should take him No. 1 overall.
In any case, regardless of which NBA franchise utilizes its lottery to to select Bamba, it will happen at the Barclay’s Center, just miles away from Bamba’s hometown of Harlem. As expected, Bamba is especially excited about the opportunity to hear his name called and officially become an NBA player in front of friends and family.
“It’s going to be awesome. I think it will really bring everyone together,” Bamba said of being drafted just minutes from Harlem. “That’s the goal; just to see everyone in my neighborhood come out and be together. I think that would be a pretty good shining moment.”