In my recent college ball travels I’ve run into two #1 pick candidates: Marvin Bagley and Mohamed Bamba. Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are also in the running to be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft but this article will focus on the two bigs I’ve seen play live over the past week. In one game Boston College upset #1 Duke 89-84 in a somewhat disappointing performance for Bagley and just this past weekend Texas beat Louisiana Tech 75-60 in a solid game for Bamba albeit with a lot of foul trouble. I also attended Texas practice the day before the game. And it’s to be noted that the two did match-up earlier this season at the PK80 where Duke won in OT 85-78 and Bagley outplayed Bomba. This will be pretty free-flowing piece with just my general thoughts from the games and really is a way to help compare some of these guys to Doncic.
Bamba vs. Louisiana Tech
Bamba is absolutely humongous at 6’11” with 7’9″ wingspan. Just the site of him looks freakish. Basketball players are big and long but Bamba stands out so much more beyond this. It’s just absolutely amazing seeing his length up close, it’s almost hard fathom that he even exists.
Bamba is a quiet smart kid with African roots but grew up in Harlem, New York. He’s not much of a talker but he really is a thinker. Because he’s so damn big and there’s so much potential, he sometimes get questioned for his motor. Defensively things come so easy to him, people often want to see him push himself and be aggressive for more.
In practice Bamba just goes about his work. He really put in time working on getting deeper post seals and got praise from the coaching staff. Between practice and the game what seemed to be his an interesting offensive skill long-term (besides just finishing around the rim) is his shooting. Bamba has a quality stroke for how big he is and looked comfortable shooting 3’s in practice. He has an ability on post-ups outside the paint to face-up and just shoot over his defender as well. His hands are absolutely massive and sometimes the way the shot comes off is not totally clean yet. Where he is kind of awkward with his touch is on non dunks and non straight forward layups. He lacks great feel around the rim when he has to finish in an unorthodox way without the backboard.
Texas doesn’t run a lot of clean PnR action for Bamba and he didn’t have many lob finish attempts, something that should be a major weapon as a pro. Texas also plays a lot of big-big lineups and Bomba even starts next to Dylan Osetkowski, who has range, but really is more of a 5. And Texas’ guards are quite athletic and excel in transition but in the half court they really don’t have the ability to get Bamba many easy scoring looks. In a pro setting he will have much more space to rim run and finish inside. But his offensive skills are certainly still pretty raw.
What makes Bamba special is his defensive potential. There is Mutombo, Bol, David Robinson type ability. With his length and instincts, Bamba just blocks shots that don’t seem possible to get to. He’s incredible at blocking jump shots. There was a moment in practice where a teammate looked to have an open mid-range shot, Bamba had a foot in the paint, and in an instant he’s tipping the shot. The most breathtaking thing for me is seeing Bamba get out and deflect these shots that normally it’d be impossible to get to. These are just regular jump shots taken within the course of a basketball game and now when you play against Bamba you don’t know when he’s going to pop out and disrupt your normal shooting flow.
In the game there were a couple instances where players got offensive rebounds, starred up at the tower in front of them, and maneuvered around with head and shot fakes till they thought they saw a sliver of daylight. But they were wrong and Bomba absolutely crushed their shots out of bounds. He’s disciplined, he knows he can block you at anytime and in an instant so he doesn’t go for fakes or doesn’t get overly jump happy. He holds his ground and just waits for you to shoot. SWAT! If you’re stuck in the paint at a stop, there is just not chance you’re getting a ball on the rim with Bamba standing there.
Texas had total control of the game vs. LA Tech, but Bamba kept getting fouls (got his 4th early in the 2nd half, refs were very whistle happy). And once he’d sub out LA Tech would make a run, getting to the rim and convertting shots. Once Bamba subbed back in Tech had little chance to get good looks inside and Texas would seize back control of the game. In just 18 minutes he had 14 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 blocks.
Bagley vs. Boston College
Bagley re-classified to this year’s freshman class, making him a year younger than Bamba and Ayton and the same year as Doncic (1999). Bagley has tons of tools. At 6’11” he truly is a real combo big who can switch between playing the 4 and the 5. Bagley has a perimeter game where his 3PT shot is reliable and he is incredible at attacking the basket. He also has a post game and touch inside. The problem comes more with whom do you pair him with as a pro, a traditional 5 or a modern 4? Bagley probably won’t just fit in everywhere, the right fit is important.
Bagley can struggle with motor and defense. Especially vs. BC, he really had trouble guarding BC’s talented guards in space. Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson just went at him in PnR switches and he didn’t move or provide the necessary effort to slow them down.
Of course you have to take Bagley’s performance vs. BC with a grain of salt because he had an off game and Duke as a whole had an off game as they suffered a tremendous upset. Duke also has a lineup issues, they always play two bigs together and the spacing is even worse than it is for Texas. Two centers are on the court at all times for Duke and sometimes they go with the three bigs lineups including Bagley, Wendell Carter, and Javin DeLaurier (Maurice Bolden also gets some minutes). So their lineups rarely have the proper spacing on offense or the flexibility to guard and cover enough space on defense. And Duke lacks creators on offense, besides Grayson Allen, no one is proficient at creating shots for teammates. So in the BC game Duke kept trying to play bully ball and hammer in post-ups inside which made for some ugly basketball.
Bagley played all 40 minutes vs. BC and had 15 points, 12 rebounds, 1 block, steal, and assist (also 4 turnovers and fouls). He really is a face-up monster, whether catching on the perimeter or turning a post-up into a face-up opportunity, Bagley can use his deadly jab step and power + agility moves to score. He’s just a natural player for his size with the ball and has a real scoring feel. He also hammers the offensive glass, creating tons of put-back opportunities. And to top it all off he has 3PT range (1/4 vs. BC) and a much further a long shot than Bamba. He still needs to get more reps and become a more consistent shooter but the framework is certainly there. He will make NBA 3’s at a more than solid clip.
He does have short arms, a 7’1″ wingspan, and a lack of length isn’t usually the case with top prospects. Bagley is not really a rim protector and since he doesn’t guard on the perimeter or in space well right now on the ball, there are questions about who he’ll defend in the pro’s. But he’s does seem suited for a modern stretch 5 role offensively. He’s not really a passer but there also could be some circumstance in there. He has to create most of his shots himself and he’s playing next to all freshman besides Allen.
This is just one live game each and neither player had a standout performance. Though Bamba did play better and his team won. And I’ve watched film on these guys but not to the level of seeing most of their games or even having eyes on them at many youth tournaments in the past. But Bomba’s clear defensive role and the potential to be really special even in the NBA on defense and at blocking shots/protecting the rim seems to make him a slightly better candidate to go #1 overall. And when evaluating centers/big men, their defense is often more important than their offense. Bagely’s offensive and rebounding ability are extremely impressive, he has a versatile skill set in a lot of areas. But Bomba’s one amazing game changing ability is something I’d feel more comfortable betting on.