Friday night was the beginning of the 2017-18 NCAA basketball season and with that we were treated to the debut of several members of this year’s freshmen class. Among those to take the court was Mohamed Bamba of Texas.
Bamba is a New York native who took a serious look at attending a few Ivy League schools before deciding to attend Texas thanks to a bond he developed with Shaka Smart during his time with USA Basketball. There were eligibility concerns over the summer — prior to the pay-for-play recruiting scandal that broke in September — when his brother claimed that Bamba had received impermissible benefits in high school. However, Bamba’s named was cleared relatively quickly.
On the floor, Bamba is a menace on both ends of the floor. His outrageous 7-foot-9 wingspan makes him a terror around the rim offensively and defensively.
Smart’s teams play aggressive defense and Bamba’s ability to play on the perimeter and protect the rim make him the perfect center for his system. Bamba had the highlight of the night when he stole the ball at half court following an errant pass and then cut to the rim and slammed it home ferociously with one-hand.
While there were highlights a plenty on opening night, the most noticeable area of impact was how opposing players attacked the rim. Layups become floaters, putbacks become hesitations, mid-range jumpers become air balls. Bamba understands the advantage he has with his length and does a good job of staying on his feet to avoid fouls challenging everything inside the arc.
Having Bamba’s combination of size and length is one thing, but having the smarts and defensive IQ to stay out of foul trouble is usually something that takes time for a player as young as Bamba to develop.
On the other end of the court Bamba’s rawness as a prospect really shines through. He doesn’t yet have a staple of back-to-the-basket moves — his first shot attempt came off a turnaround left-handed hook shot, which missed — and he often needs others to get him the ball in the right spots to be really effective.
Bamba had some alley-oop finishes and easy points from offensive rebounds in this game and that is likely where he will make his biggest impact this season for Texas. A lot of Texas’ sets began with a “horns” design. In “horns” sets the two big men setup at the elbows and the guards off the ball start in the corners. Mostly, Bamba was a release valve for on-ball pressure or set an early screen to get the point guard attacking downhill.
Texas jumped out to a 14-4 edge before Bamba took his first rest of the game and by the time he was subbed out a second time that lead had expanded to 20 over halfway through the first half. Bamba’s ability to man the paint allows for the remainder of the players on the Longhorns roster to be more aggressive on both ends of the floor. Knowing that someone like Bamba is in the paint to protect the rim on defense and clean up misses on offense is a very freeing feeling. The Longhorns finished the game with six players in double-figures in an easy victory.
Bamba finished the game with 15 points and 8 rebounds to go along with a steal and 4 blocks in 23 minutes. Going forward, Bamba will need to prove he’s comfortable playing on the perimeter offensively if he wants to truly challenge for the number one pick next summer. He shot one trail 3-pointer in this game that spun in-and-out.
The latest freshmen sensation in Austin isn’t as polished on offense as Kevin Durant or LaMarcus Aldridge were when they first came to Texas, but he could arguably be the better long-term prospect in regards to the NBA. Bamba is oozing with potential and is still clay waiting to be molded at the next level. He also is the perfect center for the modern NBA, a true rare breed. He’s not yet a unicorn, but he is closing in on becoming one.