Westtown School's Mo Bamba watches from the bench during a high school basketball game against Hillcrest Prep at the 2017 Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. The older brother of Texas basketball recruit Mo Bamba, one of the top incoming players in the country next season, says Bamba took improper gifts and money from a Detroit financial adviser that would make him ineligible to play in college. Texas says Bamba’s amateur status had previously been reviewed by the NCAA and he’s been cleared to play (AP Photo/Gregory Payan, File)

BEVO BEAT

Mo Bamba’s simple goal: ‘Hopefully, we can get Texas basketball back on the map’

Posted August 2nd, 2017

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This 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 6-11 freshman from New York and the centerpiece of a highly-touted recruiting class that may change everything inside the Erwin Center.

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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 guard this 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 transferring. The smart money’s on him being the season’s biggest surprise.

Mohamed Bamba-Texas Longhorns
Mohamed Bamba goes up for a dunk during the 2017 McDonald’s All American games POWERADE Jam Fest on March 27, 2017 at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Illinois. David Banks/Getty Images

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 workout, 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 ‘gigantic 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, Penn. 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, Bamba believes that UT is “a gigantic 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.”

Mohamed Bamba #11 of the boys east team blocks Michael Porter Jr. #1 of the boys west team during the 2017 McDonalds’s All American Game on March 29, 2017 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. David Banks/Getty Images

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 this November?

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

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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