Mo Bamba’s growing case as the best player in this draft

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Mohamed Bamba won’t be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft — the Phoenix Suns have all but assured Deandre Ayton of that honor — but it won’t be for lack of effort.

Perhaps the most enigmatic prospect in this class, Bamba theoretically ticks every box NBA teams are looking for in a modern big man with his size, length, mobility, budding skill level, defensive potential and intelligence. Watch him work out, and it’s hard not to feel as if the Harlem native is right when he tells you, “I should be the No. 1 pick in the draft.”

So why won’t it happen? There are questions about his still-developing frame (he has added 30 pounds in the past three years), an up-and-down season at Texas and his motor, plus competition in the sheer star power at the top of this draft. But history shows that the player picked No. 1 isn’t guaranteed to be the best prospect in the class.

Bamba has done everything in his power since his season wrapped in March to make his case for why teams might regret passing on him, with a regimented routine including strength training, physical therapy, boxing, beach workouts, yoga, film study and two skill workouts a day with renowned player development specialist Drew Hanlen in Los Angeles.

Hanlen has become well known in basketball circles because of his work with Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid and Bradley Beal, among others, causing numerous NBA players to flock to his gym. What separates him from other trainers, beyond the relentless ribbing his clients endure in every workout, is the fact that he’s not afraid to completely reconstruct a player’s jump shot.

Tatum went from shooting 34 percent beyond the arc as a freshman at Duke to 41 percent as an NBA rookie while demonstrating polish and versatility beyond his years. Hanlen is rightfully getting a good amount of credit for the work with his longtime client. (It’s not surprising that Markelle Fultz has started to work out with Hanlen, the results of which will be fascinating to watch.)

Bamba’s shooting stroke has undergone a similar transformation to the one that Hanlen implemented in Tatum

“My mechanics are so much better,” Bamba said at a recent workout. “My landings are softer. I lowered my [shooting] pocket. I’ve got my elbow out. The ball is coming off my two guide fingers. It looks really smooth. I’m also shooting it a lot quicker. At Texas I was getting my shot off in 0.93 seconds, and now I’m getting it off in 0.72.”.

At Texas, Bamba would cock the ball behind his right shoulder and launch 3-pointers with somewhat of a slingshot motion, often jumping way forward on his attempts, leading him to covert only 14 of the 51 he tried last season (27.5 percent). The results since arriving in L.A. nearly three months ago have been impressive, as we watched Bamba drain around 80 percent of the NBA-range 3-pointers he attempted, with particular consistency from the corners.

“I had to put my trust in Drew,” Bamba said. “And the results are there. The mechanics are really paying dividends for the betterment of my jump shot. With that corner 3, it’s the highest percentage shot in the game. You get 1.5 more points than a regular 2-point shot, and it’s a lot closer. A lot of playcalls are for the corner 3. I thought that’s something I should really work on. I’m shooting really well from there.”

Bamba spends a great deal of time studying film with Hanlen, stealing stuff from other NBA big men. He’s focused on his mid- and low-post game, along with his footwork, ballhandling, screening and conditioning.

“Although there’s no one I really pattern my game after, I am a firm believer in stealing stuff from other people,” Bamba said. “When I sat down with Drew, we watched a lot of Jo-Jo [Embiid], we watched a lot of AD [Anthony Davis]. Guys who can step out and move their feet and create their own shot offensively as a 7-footer.”

Embiid is a client of Hanlen’s, which allowed Bamba to spend time working with the All-NBA center during the 76ers’ playoffs run. He has been practicing an Embiid-style jab step and drawing fouls by bullying smaller defenders — or just blowing past anyone his size in a straight-up center matchup.

And the other star centers in Bamba’s film study?

“Anthony Davis’ lateral movement is one of a kind,” he said. “The way he is able to jab and rip over the top and get to the rim is special. That’s something I am trying to integrate into my game.

“With [Clint] Capela, it’s timing. Very rarely do you see him set a screen and slip to the basket. His teammates want him to set a screen because that creates those two-on-one situations and then when you get a switch you get this ability to open up the floor and roll to the rim. What a lot of people don’t see is the potential for him to be a really good passer because of how the lane closes when he rolls. If he was able to catch the ball and make a quick decision and look for a guard in the corner, then I think that would take his game to the next level.”

Rudy Gobert, who currently has the longest wingspan in the NBA at 7-8½, is the player you most often hear compared with Bamba (whose wingspan is 7-10), and he doesn’t shy from his admiration for the 7-foot-2 DPOY favorite.

“He’s special and one of a kind,” Bamba said. “He’s in the 1 percent of people who have that defensive ability. One thing that comes to mind as soon as you think Rudy is just presence. His presence changes the whole dynamic of the game. That’s something I can really envision myself doing, on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. If they redid that draft class, I think Giannis would go No. 1 and he would go No. 2, or the other way around.”

During the several hours we spent in Hanlen’s gym, Bamba made as convincing a case as we can recall that he might be too low on draft boards. Still, NBA teams drafting in the top five continue to privately express questions about his ability to maintain a consistent intensity level during an 82-game season, as it doesn’t always appear that he’s competing at 100 percent on the court. He looked as if he was going through the motions at times both in high school and in his lone year at Texas, not always boxing out, rotating defensively, setting screens or rolling to the rim with great purpose.

“There’s a misconception about my motor not running as high,” Bamba said after a draft workout with the Chicago Bulls. “I think I showed that in the workouts today. A lot of that is due to my outside interests. Like I mentioned on a podcast before, I think what’s ridiculous is Kobe [Bryant] being worldly and knowing three or four different languages. But no one really questions his motor. It’s something I kind of use as constructive criticism and just go out here and do more.”

Despite that criticism, it’s not a stretch to say that Bamba might have the greatest upside of any player in this draft — Ayton included — due to his two-way potential as a 3-point shooting, rim-protecting, lob-catching freak who brings a highly analytical approach to the game. While it can be dangerous to put too much stock into evaluating a player in a workout setting, the images from watching Bamba’s time in the gym were too vivid and powerful to ignore in terms of the sheer talent he displays, causing us to move him up to No. 3 in our most recent top 100 rankings, behind only Ayton and Luka Doncic.

“The idea of playing in the NBA is something I’ve worked towards my entire life,” Bamba said. “It will be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think I am going to surprise people with how much feel I have for the game.”

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