Bamba's one goal: res­ur­rect­ing Horns

The 6-11 fresh­man wants to use brawn and brain to take Texas back to re­spectabil­ity and the NCAA Tour­na­ment.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Brian Davis bdavis@states­man.com

T his sounds like a wild em­bel­lish­ment or some bom­bas­tic fake news, but here it is: Mo Bamba will make you be­lieve in Texas bas­ket­ball again. Still up­set about that 11-22 record from last

year? Still think Shaka Smart isn’t fit for the job? Both are le­git­i­mate ques­tions, by the way.

Well, all that will change once Texas fans feast their eyes on Bamba, the 6-foot-11 fresh­man from New York and the cen­ter­piece of a highly touted re­cruit­ing class that may change every­thing in­side the Erwin Center.

That’s the take­away from a sum­mer­time visit to Coo­ley Pav­il­ion, where the Longhorns are get­ting ready for a 12-day trip to Aus­tralia later this month. Texas will play four pro­fes­sional teams there, and so to get ready, the NCAA al­lows 10 sum­mer prac­tices.

Sure, fresh­man Matt Cole­man is ev­ery bit the poised point guardthis team sorely needs. Vet­er­ans An­drew Jones, Ker­win Roach Jr. and Eric

Davis Jr. are pro­gress­ing. And it’s worth high­light­ing Dy­lan Osetkowski, the bruiser in­side who had to sit out last sea­son af­ter trans­fer

ring.The smart money’s on him be­ing the sea­son’s big­gest sur­prise. But no. Bamba, a Harlem na­tive and the

na­tion’s sec­ond-best high school re­cruit, is likely this pro­gram’s most im­por­tant re­cruit

since an­other East Coaster signed with Texas in 2006. Yes, Bamba means ev­ery bit as much to Smart as Kevin Du­rant did to Rick Barnes.

“Ev­ery day, you’ll see three or four plays out of him where you’ll say, ‘What the hell!?’” Osetkowski said. “Just a freak of a bas­ket­ball

player.”

That word’s get­ting a work­out th­ese days.

“Bamba’s a freak. A freak. He’s a freak!,” said Cole­man, who played with Bamba on the Team USA Un­der-17 squad last sum­mer. “Now see­ing him ev­ery day, see­ing him work out, the stuff he does, how he af­fects the game with his length and skill set and his bas­ket­ball IQ ... wow.”

Said Jones, “He’s a unique tal­ent. Yeah, he’s a freak.”

That’s one heck of a buildup. Asked what he’d say to UT fans, Bamba show­cases his in­tel­lec­tual grasp of where this pro­gram’s been and where it’s headed. This is not your typ­i­cal 19-year-old in any way, shape or form.

“Trust the process,” Bamba said with a gig­gle af­ter par­rot­ing Smart’s catch phrase. “Nah, I’d tell them things are go­ing re­ally smooth. It’s hard but we’re re­ally get­ting af­ter it. And hope­fully we can get Texas bas­ket­ball back on the map.”

“Ha!,” said Smart, who was nearby. His eyes widened and his eye­brows raised. “Smart kid.”

Bamba’s ‘plat­form’

Mo­hamed Kar­lak­wan Da­mala Bamba, the son of par­ents who im­mi­grated from the Ivory Coast, had been on col­lege coaches’ radars for years. The big man was im­pos­si­ble to miss at the West­town School in West Ch­ester, Pa. Ken­tucky, Duke and Michi­gan all made his fi­nal list. But so did Texas.

Nor­mally, the as­sis­tant coaches han­dle the bulk of re­cruit­ing. Smart per­son­ally went af­ter Bamba.

Bamba said he kept tabs on the Longhorns through­out last sea­son. He knew what UT in­sid­ers knew. Smart’s

first sea­son was all about man­ag­ing Barnes’ ros­ter. His sec­ond was a true tran­si­tion where the ros­ter needed to be reloaded. Turned out it be­came a sea­son that even fu­ture first-round draft pick Jar­rett Allen couldn’t save.

“As I watched, and I al­ways tell my team­mates this, I

didn’t feel as dis­con­nected from the 11-22 record as peo­ple think just be­cause I wasn’t here,” Bamba said. “While I was go­ing through the whole re­cruit­ing process, I felt a lot of scru­tiny from peo­ple who said, ‘Why are they still on your list if they’re 11-22?’ But I’m a vi­sion­ary. I al­ways look at things big pic­ture.

“It was pretty easy to see this was the place for me re­gard­less of wins and losses,” he added. “I think I can come here and have an im­pact and flip that around.”

Bamba announced his com­mit­ment via The Play­ers’ Tri­bune, a website more suited for pro sports talk. The shock was that he picked the Longhorns.

In his 1,329-word es­say, Bamba said “one school filled my de­ci­sion jar the best.”

Now, more than two months later sit­ting in­side Coo­ley Pav­il­ion, Ba m ba be­lieves that UT is “a gi­gan- tic plat­form.”

“The thing is here, there’s no such thing as the plat­form. There are mul­ti­ple plat­forms,” Bamba said. “There’s a plat­form on the aca­demic end. There’s a plat­form on the ath­letic end, ob­vi­ously. I think there’s a plat­form here so­cially. Even­tu­ally, if I want to be the player I want to be, I’m go­ing to have to build my brand. Texas was ob­vi­ously the best at build­ing all three of those.”

It’s clear that Bamba is heav­ily in­flu­enced by Du­rant and un­der­stands the power of the logo.

“I re­ally feel like I’m tak­ing this univer­sity any­where I go,” Bamba said. “You can see that. It’s very ap­par­ent with Du­rant. He’s al­ways try­ing to come back here, and he’s al­ways try­ing to show the world he’s a Longhorn for life.”

Same goes for T.J. Ford, who was at UT for two years, Bamba said. And Royal Ivey, who played all four. “He’s still a Longhorn for life,” Bamba said.

“I still have yet to prove my­self in col­lege,” he quickly added. “I’m just a fresh­man.”

Pro­ject­ing ahead

So let’s get this out of the way now. Yes, Bamba is likely to be a one-and-done player, al­though he won’t say so pub­licly. Many project him as a top-three pick in the 2018 draft.

“Mo Bamba spa­ces the floor out bet­ter than Jar­rett did all year,” Jones said. “He can put the ball on the ground. He’s mo­bile. He’s not just a back-to-the-bas­ket player. He has some face-up game to him, and he can knock down the 3 the same way.”

Bamba’s long-range shoot­ing touch may sur­prise, too. He drilled 71 of 100 3-point shots dur­ing a re­cent work­out. De­fen­sively, just for com­par­i­son’s sake, think about how many shots Prince Ibeh sim­ply al­tered, let alone the 64 he blocked two years ago. Bamba’s quick feet will get him in bet­ter po­si­tion. NBA scouts are foam­ing at the mouth.

“Ob­vi­ously you have goals and as­pi­ra­tions,” Bamba said of the NBA. “I’m more of a per­son who lives in the mo­ment. I kind of want to ex­pe­ri­ence col­lege, whether it’s one year or four.”

Smart must pro­ceed as if this is a one-year deal. Land­ing Allen helped the Horns land Bamba. This coach­ing staff knows it must cash in now by get­ting back into the Big 12’s up­per crust and get­ting back to the NCAA Tour­na­ment come March.

The Texas bas­ket­ball pro­gram now has a for­ward ve­loc­ity that sim­ply can­not be squan­dered.

“I per­son­ally feel a real ur­gency to be ex­tremely hard on Mo to be the best he can be — for him and for our team,” Smart said.

Is Bamba al­ready the best player Smart’s ever coached?

“Jar­rett had a hell of a year,” Smart said. “If Mo ap­proaches the game with the level of en­gage­ment and spirit that he’s shown at times this sum­mer, then there’s no ques­tion.”

A mo­ti­vated coach fu­eled by an in­spir­ing center with a di­verse cast. What’s not to like about what lies ahead?

“Every­thing is go­ing to click when the sea­son starts,” Jones said.

‘While I was go­ing through the whole re­cruit­ing process, I felt a lot of scru­tiny from peo­ple who said, “Why are they still on your list if they’re 11-22?” But I’m a vi­sion­ary. I al­ways look at things big pic­ture.’ — Mo Bamba, Longhorns fresh­man center

GRE­GORY PAYAN / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Fresh­man center Mo Bamba is likely this pro­gram’s most im­por­tant re­cruit since an­other East Coaster, Kevin Du­rant, signed with the Longhorns in 2006.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Texas coach Shaka Smart will count upon vet­er­ans such as ju­nior Eric Davis Jr., who is pro­gress­ing this sum­mer, to help the Longhorns re­bound from an 11-22 sea­son.

DAVID BANKS / GETTY IMAGES

Mo Bamba, dunk­ing at a McDon­ald’s All Amer­i­can game, was rated the coun­try’s sec­ond-best re­cruit. He chose UT over Ken­tucky, Duke and Michi­gan.

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