NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There was a sequence early in the first half of Texas’s NCAA tournament opener against Nevada on Friday that encapsulated why Mohamed Bamba is not long for college. Wolf Pack senior guard Hallice Cook caught the ball just outside the three-point line and drove into the lane for what looked like it would be an uncontested finish at the basket. As Cook revved up to take off barely beyond the restricted area and lay the ball in with his right hand, Bamba shuffled across the lane, rotated his lanky, 7-foot frame while setting his feet, rose up and swatted the ball off the backboard. Then he cantered down the floor as teammate Dylan Osetkowski dribbled past halfcourt, posted up Nevada forward Cody Martin, snatched Osetkowski’s bounced feed with his left hand, quickly spun around Martin, and threw down a reverse, one-handed dunk.
There was no player on the court at Bridgestone Arena with a brighter future in this game than Bamba, but on Friday, against a seasoned mid-major team with nearly 30 wins to its credit this season, he could not make enough of a difference. In the immediate aftermath of No. 10 Texas squandering a 14-point second-half lead in an 87-83 overtime first-round defeat to the No. 7 Wolf Pack, Bamba was not ready to address what lies ahead for him. Sitting in a locker room before a pack of reporters, wearing a grey-and-burnt-orange Longhorns hoodie and a forlorn look, Bamba was asked about his timeline for making a decision about playing professional basketball. “I’m not really, like, too concerned about that right now,” he said. “I’m just trying to live in the moment.”
The NBA has been waiting for Bamba since before he decided where he was going to play college basketball. He rated out as a consensus top-five recruit in his high school class. He has a cartoonishly long wingspan (7’9’’), the agility to stay in front of ball handlers on the perimeter and a developing shooting stroke. The term “unicorn” may have lost currency as a modern basketball descriptor through overuse, but let there be no doubt that Bamba is of a rare breed. This was true before he announced last spring that he would attend Texas, and it will be once he officially moves on to begin his stint in the pros.
College players’ legacies are often defined by what they achieve in the NCAA tournament—the game-winning buzzer-beaters, box score-filling scoring performances and giant-slaying upsets that live on in highlight reels and prompt time-sucking Wikipedia search binges. Yet for Bamba, it is difficult not to view the NCAAs as a waypoint to something bigger. There is seemingly very little that a no-doubt-about it, future top-10 draft pick can do in a single-elimination tournament to alter what looks like a smooth course toward becoming a multimillionaire in the premier hoops league in the world. Bamba, though, gives off the impression that he doesn’t quite see it that way.
The day before the Longhorns’ loss to Nevada, Bamba was asked about the importance of playing in the tourney for a program he’s all but certain to leave this spring. What is a prime draft prospect thinking while suiting up on the amateur game’s grandest stage, when the next step—the brights lights of the NBA—is so tantalizingly close? “This is what we sign up for,” Bamba said. When a reporter mentioned the degree to which the way college players are remembered can be shaped by what they accomplish in the tourney, he added, “The opportunity and the platform is there for me now. It’s just my time to seize it.” The dejection Bamba evinced on Friday reflected the instant disappointment of a season abruptly drawn to a close, but the fact that his time in college did not include a single tourney win will soon fade into the rearview.
It wasn’t that long ago that Bamba could have skipped college, bypassed the NCAA’s amateurism charade and tapped into his earning power a year sooner. If the NBA does decide to abolish the one-and-done rule, Bamba won’t be around for it, but recent reports indicating the league could rethink its age minimum suggest the days of the Mo Bambas of the world taking part in the NCAAs could be numbered. In Bamba’s view, the decision wouldn’t be as clear-cut as it may seem for a prospect whose pro future is so secure. “Well, I was asked the other day, ‘If the old rules applied now, what would I do?,’” Bamba said on Thursday. “It was kinda 50-50 between both.” Bamba noted that there’s “nothing like playing in the NCAA tournament,” while adding that “but at the same time, you get that NBA development if you go straight to the league.”
Read through a skeptical lens, Bamba was just volunteering a politic response. There was virtually no blueblood program in any part of the country that would not have jumped at the chance to sign him. Yet Bamba’s recruitment did not boil down to a battle between one-and-done pipelines. He took an unofficial visit to Harvard and included two “football schools” (Michigan and Texas) in his final four, along with Duke and Kentucky. When he ultimately picked the Longhorns, Bamba explained in an essay for the Players Tribune that he had developed a close relationship with head coach Shaka Smart and noted that he was drawn to the university’s business school. “My academic focus,” he wrote, “is not just lip service.”
On the court at Texas, Bamba spent his freshman season reaffirming his status a transcendent defensive prospect and rounding out his offensive game. Less than two months in, he asked Smart to coach him harder. During Big 12 play, he led the conference in defensive rebounding percentage, ranked second in block percentage and fourth in two-point field goal percentage. In January, he talked about the game “slowing down” for him and, over a six-game stretch that month, he averaged 19.2 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 65.5% from the field. He refined his offensive skill set. “[Bamba’s] touch around the rim,” says Texas junior guard Kerwin Roach, “is incredible now.” All the while, Bamba remained a fixture near the top of the first round of mock drafts, including the latest from The Crossover’s Front Office, which pegs him as the No. 4 pick. “Mo is years away from being the player that he will be,” Smart said. “But he’s pretty darn good right now.”
Friday’s meeting with Nevada was the first opportunity in a while to assess how much progress Bamba has made over the course of a freshman season that included stretches where it was far from clear that Texas would have the résumé to even make it to this point. Bamba had not played more than 15 minutes in a game since suffering a sprained toe in a Feb. 17 win over Oklahoma. The sprain limited him in two subsequent games and caused him to sit out three more, but he had recovered in time for the Longhorns’ biggest matchup of the season. Over 31 minutes, Bamba recorded his 15th double-double—tallying 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting and snatching 14 rebounds—while towering over the Wolf Pack’s undersized frontline.
Yet Bamba was reduced to watching from the bench in overtime after picking up his fifth foul with less than five seconds remaining in a tie game. As Nevada pulled away in the extra session, Bamba sat glumly on the bench between assistants Darrin Horn and Mike Morrell, his long arms folded atop his head. Bamba was watching what are almost certain to be the final moments of a one-year layover in college. “I’m still processing,” he said on Friday, “what just happened.” For Bamba, the NCAAs came and went before he intended them to. That will not disrupt the next step of a supremely gifted player’s career.