Mo Bamba

Why Bamba believes he can play next to mentor Embiid

Could Mo Bamba-Joel Embiid minutes work for the Sixers?

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Danny Green called it the Sixers’ “King Kong-Godzilla” lineup. 

Though Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond almost never played with each other in games, their pairing came to mind Monday afternoon.

Mo Bamba thinks he’s capable of sharing the court with Embiid and said the reigning MVP was a “huge driving force” in his decision to join the Sixers.

“I think leading up to free agency, we chatted a little bit,” Bamba said from the lobby of the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey. “And then during it, we chatted and he was like, ‘Listen, this might sound a little crazy because we’ve been playing against each other so much, but I think the Sixers would be a great fit for you.’ 

“I don’t know exactly what it’ll look like as far as playing together or not playing together. But I think we can play together. The reason I believe that is Jo, he can be position-less. He’s such a scoring threat on the floor. He’s such a dominant force out there to where it might open up things for other players. With how I’ve been progressing my game to be a stretch five, stretch four, I think there’s very much a good chance that we can play together. But he was (also) just telling me things about his experiences with the league. … He’s honestly just an easy person to learn from and be around.”

As Bamba prepared to enter the NBA, Embiid referred him to trainer Drew Hanlen and got to know the rangy, raw shot blocker well. 

With Embiid out because of an orbital fracture for Games 1 and 2 of the Sixers’ 2018 first-round playoff series against the Heat, Bamba absorbed knowledge from an All-Star firsthand. In a feature story on Bamba for The Ringer, John Gonzalez wrote, “Embiid would drive Bamba to the games, and afterward they’d go back to Embiid’s place to break down film for hours. … Bamba told me Embiid gave him all the cheat codes.” 

Clearly, Bamba and Embiid have stayed in touch. 

“Me and Jo, we have a great relationship,” Bamba said Monday. “I remember when I was going through the pre-draft (process) and I was looking at what I wanted to do for the next couple of months going into the league, I reached out to Jo and he was like, ‘This is the guy that I work with.’ From there, our relationship kind of just blossomed. And then even when I was in Orlando, I reached out to him and he gave me advice on different things and how the league works.”

Will Bamba-Embiid lineups indeed prove to be viable?

Bamba’s comfort beyond the arc is certainly a plus. Over the last two seasons, he’s hit 38.3 percent of his three-pointers on substantial volume (7.5 attempts per 100 possessions).

And though the sample size wasn’t large at all, the Magic even had success using lineups with Bamba alongside Khem Birch, who rarely shoots threes. Per Cleaning the Glass, Bamba-Birch units had a plus-3.9 net rating in the 2019-20 season. The next year, they sported a stellar plus-20.1 net rating in 208 possessions. 

Of course, there are valid counters to the notion that Bamba-Embiid minutes will work. Wendell Carter Jr.-Bamba lineups were good defensively but struggled to score for a Magic squad that finished the 2021-22 season with a 22-60 record. Bamba hasn’t yet shown he can be an NBA playoff contributor. And though Georges Niang has left for Cleveland, Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker are still Sixers and should still be able to play solid power forward minutes next to Embiid. Perhaps Paul Reed can do that as well on top of his usual backup center role. Reed is back on a three-year, $23 million deal, while Bamba signed a one-year, minimum-salary contract. 

Still, Bamba knows Sixers head coach Nick Nurse doesn’t mind experimentation and unconventional schemes. 

“I had a great conversation with Coach Nurse,” Bamba said. “He joked around with me and said every time I played the Raps, I played well, and that I had it out for him. But we had a great conversation. I know he’s one of the most creative coaches since I’ve been in the league with the lineups he’s put out there. 

“If you look at his championship lineup back in (2018-19) when I came into the league, he played a lot of two bigs. He played a lot of Serge (Ibaka) and Marc Gasol at the four and five slots, and he made it work. With his creativity, watching him blossom into one of the most respected coaches in the league has been fun to watch.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Patrick Beverley also took questions for the first time as a Sixer. Bamba’s background with the veteran guard includes a postgame incident in a parking garage that Beverley described on his podcast. After taking an elbow from Bamba and suffering an ear injury, Beverley wanted an apology. He respected how Bamba handled the situation and doesn't hold a grudge of any kind.

Beverley and Bamba swapped teams at the trade deadline last year, too. Bamba sounded glad to now be on the same side. 

“What incident? Nah, I’m joking,” he said with a laugh. “It was really nothing even worth bringing up. I think the first guy I hit up, barring Joel, after I signed to the Sixers was Pat. I know his work ethic, I know his drive, I know how much he puts into the game, and that’s something I’ve admired. One thing I told him is, ‘You’re one of the guys I really wanted to play with.’ I think there’s a lot I can learn from him. 

“He’s a guy who’s never really missed the playoffs. … There’s just a lot I can learn from him defensively. Offensively, I don’t think he gets enough credit as a passer and a leader and floor general. It’s going to be really interesting to get out there and not only compete with him in practice, but to play with him finally.”

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