One particular moment at the NBA scouting combine last week was as insignificant as it was memorable.
Behind a row of NBA executives that included Magic Johnson, Texas coach Shaka Smart and assistant Jai Lucas stood all alone. Literally five feet away, Kentucky’s John Calipari was surrounded by almost a dozen reporters, eager to hear the latest Big Blue news.
The Longhorns were the ones making headlines on Thursday, not the Wildcats.
After months of speculation, five-star big man Mohamed Bamba announced via The Players’ Tribune that he was signing with UT instead of Kentucky. The 6-11 power forward was the No. 1 recruit in New York and is considered by many to be a top-five pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
“When all was said and done, one school filled my decision jar the best,” Bamba wrote. “I’ve decided to attend the University of Texas. I will be heading there in early June to get to work.”
Yes, Bamba — known to friends as “Mo” — may be another one-and-done player, same as Myles Turner and Jarrett Allen. But the nation’s second-best overall recruit is an instant game changer for the Longhorns.
Former Longhorns star Kevin Durant tweeted simply, “#HookEm.”
This is a far different team now than the one that went 11-22 and finished last in the Big 12 two months ago. With Bamba, Smart has assembled the No. 4-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports’ composite ratings. Six new players are joining the program, including point guard Matt Coleman, and transfer forward Dylan Osetkowski is now eligible after sitting out one season.
Now, it’s likely that Texas will be among the preseason top-25 talk come October.
“It’s a great day for us, for our team, for our program,” Smart said Thursday in what classifies as an incredible understatement. The coach, who had already received Bamba’s signed paperwork, kept his cool composure with reporters. Internally, he had to be going bonkers.
Normally, assistants handle the primary recruitment of all players and the head coach closes the deal. Not with Bamba. Smart took the mission himself, visiting Bamba’s home in Harlem, N.Y. and taking an active role in meeting the player’s family.
As for his decision, Bamba wrote that, “A wise man once told me that your college decision is an outright reflection of who you really are on the inside.
“How do I better myself and build a long, successful career that will 1) ensure that my father won’t have to drive a cab 70-plus hours a week, including nights and weekends, and 2) ensure that my mother — my true rock — will never have to worry about me again?” he added.
Smart and Bamba first got to know each other last summer in Chile. Smart coached Allen, Bamba, Coleman and UT signee James Banks on the Team USA Under-18 team. Bamba wrote that he was putting Smart through a “weeklong job interview.”
“We instantly formed a bond,” Bamba wrote. “Now the tables have turned, and I’m the one interviewing with him, hoping to show I can play a major role in his team’s success next season.
Bamba later told Smart that he was interested in visiting UT. While most recruiting services dismissed the Longhorns’ chances, Bamba learned everything he could about the coach and the Austin campus. The Horns were quietly improving their odds.
“His attention to detail is truly unbelievable — I can’t tell you how many times he picked up on something I mentioned in passing and brought it back full circle several months later,” Bamba added. “I’ve seen first-hand how much he genuinely cares about me and my family and how he’s going to challenge me to be in a state of continuous improvement.”
Bamba becomes the 19th McDonald’s All-American in UT history and the 15th to play in the Jordan Brand Classic. He averaged 12.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game in leading Westtown School to a 32-2 record.
In his open letter, Bamba credited UT’s strength and conditioning program and he praised Allen’s development last season. Allen averaged 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds and is now a projected NBA lottery pick. His 32 minutes per game will likely fall to Bamba.
Bamba is also the rare recruit that will cite UT’s McCombs School of Business as another factor in his decision.
“How can a projected ‘one-and-done’ college athlete get a real college education?” he wrote. “That gets thrown around a lot and I want to go on record as saying that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. My academic focus is not just lip service. It’s extremely important to me and my family, but I also firmly believe that the best class I’ll ever take will actually be taught by the people I will surround myself with.”
Bamba is expected to be with the Longhorns on their upcoming Australia trip this August. As far as Smart is concerned, the season can’t get here fast enough.
“Mo’s decision, all the guys that have decided to come here for reasons beyond just basketball, it says a lot about UT,” Smart said. “It says a lot about this city. And I think that’s a great thing.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email [email protected].