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Rookie Rivals: Marvin Bagley and Mo Bamba Showcase the Big Man Evolution

Our second rookie big-man match-up shows just how much the center position has changed in the last decade.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This rookie class of centers has the chance to define the position for the next decade or more, but the changing demands of the position have already angled their development paths in ways that would have been considered ludicrous even a decade ago.

Yes, the changing usage of NBA bigs is one of the most discussed/overly discussed NBA topics in that same decade, but it is amazing to see just how far the pendulum has swung. No big man can showcase these changing priorities like Mo Bamba, who is using his 6’11 size and legendary 7’10 wingspan to... stretch the floor and hang out beyond the three point line. Look at Bamba’s off-ball use last night, when he finished with 7 points, 7 boards, and 5 blocks against fellow rookie Marvin Bagley and the Kings.

The Magic have NO one in the paint, so what does their young center do once he’s set the screen at the high elbow? He moves to the corner and waits to see how Bagley will react when the ball gets tossed into his half of the court. Imagine an NBA coach in the early 2000s looking at their prized rookie giant and saying “alright kid, I want you to go out there and WARP THE OFFENSIVE GRAVITY!”

Of course, this has always been in the cards for Bamba. Despite less-than-ideal shooting success at Texas (he was 14 of 51 from three [27.5%], and shot 30% on all half-court jumpers, per Synergy), his shot was the biggest point of emphasis for Bamba’s big pre-draft development push. And seven games into his career, only 45% of Bamba’s 33 attempted field goals have come at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass stats. Against Sacramento, this was his role.

Of course, Bamba’s simplified shot selection is probably a smart move by Magic Coach Steve Clifford at this point... unlike Bagley, he’s really not ready to handle the ball in space yet, as Buddy Hield emphatically showed last night.

But despite his raw offensive skills, Bamba was on the floor late into the 4th quarter as the Magic tried and failed to make a run against the Kings. Clifford kept Bamba in over his leading scorer, Nikola Vučević, because Bamba could actually keep up with the Kings pace. (Read that again—the Kings pace dictated an opposing coach’s lineup decisions and kept a 20 PPG scorer on the bench in crunch time. Thank god Dave Joerger took those training wheels off.) Someday, if/when Bamba’s shot becomes a consistent weapon, he’s going to be a two-way terror because he can already do this to the fastest player in the league.

On the other side of the court, Marvin Bagley continued his impressive rookie campaign with 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 assists in just 23 minutes. And while his shot selection is much more interior-focused than Bamba’s—52% of Bagley’s shots come at the rim, and 30% come from the short-midrange, per Cleaning the Glass—he’s also showcasing deep-ball range that would have been cool a decade ago, but is vital today.

(Side note: that pull-up three wasn’t the highlight of Bagley’s night. That came in his first bucket against Bamba, when the Attack Titan took the Colossal Titan off the dribble with this pretty spin move.)

The role of the big man has changed, thanks to the dominance of driving guards and the increased need for spacing. But even as the demands of the position change, there will also be a premium for size and length... especially when you can get size and length that can rebound, pass, and spread the floor. The importance of bigs hasn’t changed—five of the first seven picks in the 2018 draft class were centers, after all—but as Bagley and Bamba are both showing, the development of rookie bigs is astoundingly different than it was a decade ago.