CAMDEN, NJ — Mo Bamba is the latest center brought in by the Philadelphia 76ers to back up Joel Embiid. The 25-year-old big man joins Paul Reed and Montrezl Harrell on the Sixers roster as they jostle for minutes off the bench.
Bamba, a native of Harlem, New York, became a Sixers fan during his time at Westtown School in the nearby town of West Chester. The passion that Philly fans had made him want to root for the team. Now, he will get the chance to contribute to the “winning pedigree” in Philly.
Unlike many of Embiid's previous backups, Bamba is a strong outside shooter. In his five-year career, Bamba has made 35.9 percent of his attempt from deep and has raised the rate at which he attempts threes each season. A shade over half of his attempts came from deep last season. His ability to stretch the floor and make defenses pay for being overly aggressive against rim pressure gives him an intriguing theoretical fit next to Embiid on the court. Could that double-big lineup work? For many reasons, it very well could.
For starters, Bamba said that he and Embiid have a great relationship that started when Embiid introduced him to his trainer, Drew Hanlen. Bamba called Embiid “an easy person to just learn from.” During free agency, the Sixers superstar pitched Bamba on Philly with the idea that the team fits him and that they could potentially spend time on the floor together.
Bamba recalls Embiid's pitch going like this: “Listen, this might sound a little crazy because we've been playing against each other so much. But it looks like the Sixers would be a good fit for you. I don't know exactly what it will look like as far as playing together or not playing together. But I think we can play together.”
The idea works mainly because Embiid has skills that are rarely seen from a center. “Jo, believe it or not, believes that he can be positionless. 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,” Bamba said. “The way how I've been progressing my game to be a stretch five, stretch four, I think there's very much of a chance that we can play together.”
Embiid serving as the focal point of the offense creates space on the perimeter to shoot. Given Philly's need to expand its offense past the James Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll and isolations from each star, Bamba not only being a good shooter but being someone who can occasionally catch lobs from the baseline makes him a sound supporting piece.
Defensively, Bamba has made a name for himself by swatting shots, a skill that made him the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. With him and Embiid, it would leave one rim protector further out on the perimeter. Both players are equipped to hold their own out there but in a perimeter-centric league that relies so much on screens to free up shooters, it has the downside of potentially being overly taxing.
It takes a certain set of skills between both centers to play well together. Bamba explained the ins and outs of what bigs who play together need to be able to do in order to thrive.
“I think a two-big lineup only really works if you have a back-to-the-basket player in one big, say your five-man. The four-man needs to be a really good shooter. It's just spacing,” Bamba said. “It gets really when frustrating when you can't really even go to your jump hook and the paint's getting clogged. Or if you go to your face-up and there's a guy just standing, clogging the lane…”
“But defensively, I think in order to put out a two-big lineup, there's a level of defensive versatility that needs to be out there,” the Sixers center continued. “It could work with two guys in a drop coverage and might be a little harder because of the direction of the game. A lot of fours, you see a lot more Jonathan Isaac and Jaden McDaniels and even Naz Reids at the four. Those guys can put it down on the floor and do a couple of things as opposed to when I first got in the league. They were kind of more like stretch fours, kind of pick-and-pop guys. But defensively if you have a level of versatility out there with a guy who can switch, who can rim protect, a guy who can do a lot of different things, I think that'll definitely help the lineup.”
It takes more than two to tango in this dance, as the right personnel has to both surround the two bigs and fill the three lineup spots around them. The Sixers' new coach, Nick Nurse, has a history of finding success with two-big lineups in the past and the talent around them (as the roster stands now) is in good enough shape for the Embiid-Bamba duo to work.
Bamba said that he had a “great conversation” with Nurse, saying that the Sixers coach is “one of the most creative coaches since I've been in the league with the lineups that he's put out there.” Bamba noted one particular pairing that suggests he will get chances to play alongside Embiid.
“If you look at his championship run back in 2019 when I came into the league, he played a lot of two-bigs,” Bamba said. “He played a lot of Serge [Ibaka] and Marc Gasol until four or five slots. And he made it work. His creativity and watching him blossom as one of the most respected coaches in the league has been fun to watch.”
Although Bamba said that he and Nurse didn’t discuss the specifics of his role, that Toronto tandem — and even Nurse's frequent pairing of Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa over the past few years, too — is evidence that Nurse likes what he sees from big men with complimentary play styles.
Ideally, you would want solid wing defenders to deter perimeter shooters and funnel players into the two centers, who can better affect shots. This is an area that the Sixers roster needs work in, as their collection of wings is suspect. Playmaking and more three-point spacing compliment the bigs on offense and in that area, Philly is doing well with Harden (for now) to dish it and a few solid shooters, namely the swish-happy Maxey, to make the offensive fit funky in a good way.
Whether Bamba spends a good amount of time around Embiid, plays mostly at the five or primarily just runs as the floor-spacing big next to Reed off the bench, he can be the type of high-upside player that provides an impactful wrinkle for the Sixers.