PORTLAND, Ore. — In one of the most impressive and attention-grabbing rookie classes in years, it can be easy to forget about Mohamed Bamba.
The Orlando Magic's No. 6 overall pick came into the league with no shortage of intrigue, between his record-setting 7'10" wingspan and the runaway success of rapper Sheck Wes' hit song "Mo Bamba." And while he hasn't had the star-level impact out of the gate that other rookies like Dallas' Luka Doncic and Memphis' Jaren Jackson have had, Bamba has shown many of the characteristics that led analysts to peg him as a future elite defender during the predraft process.
His numbers early on in his rookie season don't jump off the page—he's averaging 6.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.3 blocks in 17 minutes per game coming off the bench. With veteran center Nikola Vucevic having an All-Star-caliber season, Bamba has yet to crack the starting lineup. But when he does get on the court, he often displays the same impressive shot-blocking instincts he did during his freshman season at the University of Texas.
"There's a lot to learn at that [center] position," Magic head coach Steve Clifford said last week. "The pick-and-roll defense, there's nothing you can do in college that will prepare you for that. And I think he's picking that stuff up well."
For the second consecutive year, the Magic are off to a surprising start that has observers wondering whether a return to the playoffs is in the cards. Last year, they got off to an 8-4 start before going on a nine-game losing streak en route to a sixth straight trip to the lottery.
This year, they ended November with an 11-12 record and a two-game lead for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Not elite by any means, but a massive improvement over the irrelevance that has come to define the organization in recent years.
"I can't really say it's unexpected that we're winning," Bamba told Bleacher Report. "We've beat some pretty good teams. But it's a matter of being consistent. That's what this league is about. Hopefully come a few months from now, we'll be in the playoff picture."
The postseason is a place the Magic have not been since they traded Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2012. In those six-plus years, they've had five head coaches, two general managers and countless questionable high-dollar contracts given out to players who didn't live up to expectations (such as Bismack Biyombo).
Now, team president Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond are banking the team's future resurgence on a trio of frontcourt players: Bamba, second-year forward Jonathan Isaac and fifth-year forward Aaron Gordon.
The one constant in Orlando during this period in the abyss has been Vucevic, who's in the midst of a career year as he prepares to hit free agency in July. Whether he's traded before February's deadline or leaves as a free agent, it's likely he will be elsewhere by the time Bamba realizes his potential. But for now, the veteran center has proved to be an ideal mentor.
"He teaches me a lot as far as spacing and how to get others open," Bamba said. "I just try to steal as much as I can from him."
For his part, Vucevic wants to help Bamba as much as he can while he's still in Orlando. He points to Andre Iguodala, Spencer Hawes and Tony Battie as veterans he leaned on as a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011.
"He's young. He's still learning the game," Vucevic said. "So the game might be a little fast for him still, but we all know that with his length, he can cover so much space for us and make up for mistakes we might do. He's going to get a lot better. It's still early for him, so he needs some time to get acclimated to the NBA game."
Like any rookie big man, Bamba fouls too much (2.1 per game in limited time). He's still adjusting to the reality of being a big man in the modern NBA.
It's no longer enough to just protect the rim, though he's ahead of schedule in that department for a 20-year-old. Many of the NBA's top bigs play on the perimeter as well as in the post. Bamba himself hopes to eventually become that type of inside-outside threat, but early on, defending a larger part of the court has been enough of a challenge.
"He's been blocking shots his whole life," Isaac told B/R. "He's been under the basket guarding screen-and-rolls his whole life. When you get out there on the wing and have to be negotiating screens and how you're screening this guy and that guy, it's tough.
"But down there, he just keeps his guy in front of him and attacks shots at the rim. That's what he's been good at his whole life. It's an easy transition for him. I think the tough part is his physicality and being able to bang with guys, and that's where he's struggled a bit."
Bamba's own outside shot is also a work in progress. He's shooting 32.5 percent on 1.7 three-point attempts per game; however, he's hit at least one three in five of the Magic's past six games. Becoming even a credible threat from the outside would help him stay on the floor, particularly if the Magic remain in the postseason race as the season progresses.
Right now, with Vucevic putting up huge numbers and leading the Magic to wins, Bamba can afford to grow his game slowly. Eventually, the day will come where he will need to step into a larger role if the Magic are to have the kind of long-term success they envision.
"I need to improve on a lot of different areas," Bamba said. "I need to improve on my timing on my shot-blocking, when to go and when not to go. And there's definitely always room for improvement on my shooting."
The bigger role and responsibility will come in time. For now, Bamba is happy to be contributing on a team that's winning more early on than anyone from the outside thought they would. The Magic are one of this season's surprise early successes, and for Bamba, that's only the beginning.