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Chicago Bulls 2018 Draft Preview: The Mo Bamba option

first in our Bulls-centric draft previews

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not long removed from a time when owning a high lottery pick and drafting a dominant big man prospect was the ultimate privilege. Now, the value placed on traditional centers has never been lower. The modern NBA demands a new breed of big, one who possesses the rare combination of rim-protection, an ability to guard in space, and even a competent 3-point stroke. With the evolution of the center position still being in its infancy, very few players in the league are capable of this, but one player who potentially could do it all is Texas freshman Mohamed Bamba.

That, of course, assumes he can become anything close to the lofty projections placed upon him. Outside of Michael Porter - who missed most of his freshman season due to injury - Bamba might be the hardest prospect to figure out in the top tier of this year’s draft class. Raw, unpolished, and with a range of outcomes as large as his frame, Bamba is this year’s most fascinating project.

The Good

The first and only place to start with Bamba is his physical profile. Standing 7-feet with an unfathomable 7-foot-10 wingspan, the 20-year-old behemoth was put on this earth to eat souls at the rim. In his lone season at Texas, he did exactly that, blocking 3.7 shots per game and posting a 13.1 percent block rate - a mark good for fifth in the country last season.

Combing his otherworldly length — which will make him the longest player in the league once he debuts — with nimble and coordinated footwork, Bamba will continue to be a shot-blocking machine in the pros.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the sprightly footwork that has allowed Bamba to expertly time his blocks, will also prove a valuable physical trait in scenarios where switching onto smaller perimeter players is necessary. Though he won’t be able to contain all of the league’s quicker guards, Bamba’s foot speed, length and coordination acting in unison will allow the center to recover in time to curtail offensive possessions.

Protecting the paint and an ability to guard in space are the foundations that will make Bamba a force on defense. In the regard, it’s not hard to see why the Rudy Gobert comparisons have been drawn. Like Gobert, Bamba could soon become one of the most dominant defenders in the NBA, and their offensive games could be similar, too.

Using his length as an advantage, Bamba exploited matchups by scoring the majority of his baskets at the rim. A dominant offensive rebounder and a legitimate threat as a roll-man in pick-and-roll sets, Bamba can create gravity with every athletic dive toward the basket.

He can also use his giant steps to fly up the floor, acting as rim-runner in transition. His most memorable play from his freshman season came from doing exactly that.

For any team seeking to add an above the rim finisher to their spaced-out offense, these types of rim-rolling finishes should become a fixture in Bamba’s offensive repertoire.

Something else to be considered is Bamba the person. Bamba already carries himself as a seasoned professional: well spoken, self-aware and level-headed, Bamba just gets it — this is perfectly highlighted In a profile piece by John Gonzalez of The Ringer. Already working with NBA-level trainers, working out with NBA legend Kevin Garnett, seeking out advice from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, and actively managing his nutrition and development of his body, Bamba is doing all the little things a prospect should be doing ahead of the draft.

More importantly, Bamba clearly understands where the league is headed, and his place within it may be determined by his ability to improve his jump shot. The shot itself is still a work in progress and is certainly nowhere near ready to be a regular feature in any offense, but recognizing the need for a competent jumper and working towards adding it this early in his career is encouraging.

The Bad

As good as Bamba projects to be on the defensive end, there’s a reason why you rarely see him mentioned as a potential first-overall selection: His offensive game is mostly theoretical.

As the league progresses towards more and more spacing with four and even five-out lineups, it’s becoming even harder to carry big men who can’t shoot from distance. Whilst we did see Bamba take (and make) mid-range jumpers and college-line 3-pointers during his lone season at Texas, he only made 27.5 percent of his threes. In 30.2 minutes per game, shooting only 1.7 threes a night, Bamba has neither the accuracy or volume to be considered a legitimate shooting threat.

Further work is needed on the mechanics of his shot. He could stand to increase the speed of his jumper and, if possible, reducing the length in which the ball carries past his head as he begins his release.

With constant practice and additional reps shooting the ball, Bamba can become a capable shooter from the NBA 3-point line. This will take time, and until he develops a modicum of shooting in his game, his source of offense will remain close to the basket on lobs and put-backs. There is certainly value to that — former Bull Tyson Chandler carved out a nice career doing exactly that. But times have changed. He will need to be more than that on offense in order to justify 30 or more minutes of playing time.

For Bamba to stay on the floor and close games, he will need to prove his outside game is more than abstract idea. Until then, he’s primary role will be to deter as many shots as possible. But initially, he may not prove to be the immediate defensive force many expect.

As much of a positive his freakishly long limbs can be at protecting the rim, Bamba will need to learn to finish defensive plays with his torso, not just his arms. A huge wingspan is a luxury, and it has allowed Bamba to coral rebounds against smaller and less athletic collegiate athletes. In the NBA, even with his length, chasing rebounds with only his arms is a habit that will die hard. Bamba won’t be able to just reach for rebounds without moving and positioning his body. Rebounds will be contested. Strong positioning and a thirst for contact are aspects of Bamba’s game which don’t come naturally, but will be needed if he’s to continue being a dominant rebounder in the pros.

Improving his frame will be as crucial to his success as improving on his base skill set. Adding muscle is something Bamba needs to do, and do so quickly. It won’t be easy, though; his long limbs and natural body type will likely always keep him rangy and lean. Bamba can combat this with a high caloric diet and never skipping leg day in the gym. But still, stacking on muscle will be something that progressively happens over several offseasons — don’t expect Bamba to be rocking Dwight Howard-esque shoulders anytime soon.

Until Bamba can develop his body, he will be outworked and outmaneuvered by physical opponents with a lower center of gravity. As he learns the ropes, he will give up deep position on the block, which may limit his effectiveness on defense. Developing his core and increasing his leg strength should be a priority to avoid careless and sloppy defensive plays that may lead to an unnecessary amount of fouls.

An underdeveloped frame could also limit his offensive game, too. Though he can get up and play above the rim, defenders will be able to body Bamba and keep further from the basket than he’s currently comfortable with. A slight frame may also render him a weak screen-setter for a team’s ball-handler. Already prone to slipping picks, Bamba will need to learn proper technique and timing when screening, and more importantly, he will need to create strong contact on screens before making his move toward the rim.

These drawbacks may seem significant, and they will be if no improvement is made. However, with his work ethic and will to be great, it’s entirely possible Bamba can overcome these shortcomings that will be present through his initial years in the league.

The Fit

The Bulls tout their relatively-clean cap outlook, but still have $34.1 million in guaranteed money already committed to centers. However, none of Robin Lopez, Omer Asik and Cristiano Felicio figure to be long-term solutions at the five. Lopez is certainly starter-quality but is entering the final season of his contract. Therefore the Bulls should be planning for his successor now — particularly if Felicio is closer to the player from last season than the one many hoped for.

If Bamba is the best option for the Bulls at No. 7, dealing with an abundance of bigs for one season is a tolerable task. Playing behind Lopez and learning directly from a successful veteran may also expedite his development.

Looking longer-term, Bamba also projects to being one of the best possible fits next to Lauri Markkanen. As a combination, the Bulls could have two legitimate seven-footers in their frontcourt who can create offensive gravity in their own, unique way. We already know what Markkanen can do with his shooting from distance, making him an invaluable weapon in pick-and-pop action. Bamba, too, could be just as lethal with his huge frame rolling toward the rim, forcing opposing defenses to respect him as a legitimate above the rim finisher. Together, there’s scope to bamboozle an indecisive defense unsure on whether to protect the paint or close out to shooters.

Defensively, is where that pairing makes most sense. And for the Bulls, one the league’s worst defensive teams last season, finding a steadying force to the protect the rim is critical. Markkanen proved to be a much better defender as a rookie than advertised, but he still struggled to adequately prevent strong attempts at the rim, and his positioning in space can still be exploited. Having Bamba roaming and protecting the paint will help mitigate Markkanen’s defensive responsibility, allowing the young Fin more energy to expend on offense.

Should Kris Dunn remain as the starting point guard, he and Bamba could eventually become the best 1-5 pick-and-roll defensive combination in the league. That may be necessary if coach Fred Hoiberg continues to feature lineups with Zach LaVine and Denzel Valentine.

Adding complexity to his development is a league hell-bent on downsizing and positional versatility. Bamba can only play one position, one that isn’t valued like it used to be. Whilst his pairing with Markkanen can work, drafting a center will force the Bulls into a traditional, two big man lineup, something that will become less common as the league continues to explore small ball ideals.

The Gobert comparisons may also be apt from a team building concept, too. Should Bamba follow Gobert’s path, it will force the Bulls into adapting to an identity akin to the Jazz. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — despite their unorthodox approach, Utah has found success playing two bigs. But if the league should continue its shift to even more mobile and spaced-out offensive lineups, in time, Markkanen may be best served as a center.

These factors should be considered when adding Bamba to the Bulls’ core. It’s perfectly normal to question how Bamba may fit long-term in Chicago and the league itself. But if anyone this huge can find a way to exist in the modern game, it will be Bamba.

The risks in drafting Bamba are obvious, but there are clear reasons why it still makes sense, too. The biggest and most fundamental reason why the Bulls should strongly consider Bamba is his overall upside. A desire to rebuild must be met with an intent to gather as much high-end talent as possible. He may not be that yet, and it may take several seasons for it to show, but Bamba’s potential is significant, so much so that he could eventually prove to be one of the best players in this draft. Bamba is a project, who must be afforded time and quality coaching to fully develop. Without this, his shortcomings will outweigh any potential benefit offered by his everlasting wingspan.

Investing in Bamba is a gamble, perhaps one too large for a franchise who typically operates within the margins. But with a roster lacking top-end talent, swinging big would certainly be an inspired choice, maybe even a necessary one.