Draft preview: Bamba awaits NBA destination

Ross Burkhart

A few minutes after the final buzzer sounded at Texas’ preseason Tip-Off event in October, freshman phenom Mo Bamba carried himself humbly across Gregory Gym as he signed autographs for young Texas fans. Dozens stuck out their hats, programs, t-shirts and whatever else they could find for the larger-than-life freshman to autograph.

But even following a virtually meaningless scrimmage, Bamba’s stature on and off the court quickly signaled something: This was a talent that the Longhorns have been missing for several years.

Now, as Bamba’s one-and-done season has drawn to a close and all the pre-draft workouts have been completed, all that’s left is for the former Longhorn to hear his name called at the NBA Draft come Thursday night.

“I’ve just tried to encourage Mo to keep up the great work,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “His work ethic has been phenomenal in this pre-draft process. When guys get here as freshmen, you know they’re going to have to take a jump in terms of the way they approach working and Mo did that and he really stepped up a notch or two in terms of his seriousness about the game … ”

Since Bamba left Austin nearly three months ago to train, he has worked relentlessly to refine the mechanics of his jump shot with renowned trainer Drew Hanlen. Bamba also spent time with Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid breaking down game film.

“He’s different than Joel Embiid,” ESPN draft analyst Jay Bilas said. “He’s a better shot blocker, and Bamba’s unique. You don’t find guys like him. He’s got crazy length. He’s basically Rudy Gobert with better offense at this stage of his career. He’s very, very talented. He’s one of the most intelligent players in the draft.”

As for where Bamba will be selected, Bilas says Bamba’s versatility will allow him to fit in with whatever team picks him on draft night.

“There’s no team that he would not work well with because of his skill set,” Bilas said. “He’s a rim-protecting guy that can rebound and even though he’s a little bit raw offensively, he’s shown that he has an improving offensive game because he got better throughout the course of his career. He’s still really young so he’s going to develop and he’s going to get bigger and stronger, and he’s going to look a lot different in five years than he does now.”

Despite just getting one season with Bamba, Smart also views him as a player that will only improve with age.

“He’s the type of guy that you don’t want to just coach for one year or even four years,” Smart said. “You want to coach that guy for 15 years. So, whoever gets him is going to get a phenomenal person, but also someone that is a long term-player, I can’t really think of anyone that I’ve been around or even seen that has more potential than him.”

The 2018 NBA Draft will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.