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A two-big lineup? Mo Bamba is ready for it

New Sixers big man Mo Bamba has experience playing with other bigs and would love to play next to his mentor, Joel Embiid.

Orlando Magic v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

You’re forgiven if you don’t remember a Sixers preseason game from October of 2018. That was the first time that Mo Bamba, the sixth overall pick out of Texas, and Joel Embiid shared the floor.

There were fun moments for both — Embiid and-ones, a controversial Bamba dunk — but it was ultimately the reigning MVP who got the best of the Magic rookie.

“He’s really skinny, can’t guard me,” Embiid said after the game. “He had like four fouls in eight minutes. He’s lucky that I didn’t play more minutes — he would’ve fouled out in like 10 minutes.”

Of course, this was all in good fun.

“But he has a lot of potential. I’m going to keep trying to help him become what he’s supposed to be, and I think he’s going to be really good.”

Now, the big men are teammates with Bamba signing a one-year deal with the Sixers over the weekend. That means an opportunity for the Westtown High product to play with one of his mentors.

“Me and Jo, we have a great relationship,” Bamba told reporters Monday at the team’s practice facility. “I remember when I was going through the pre-draft (process) and I was looking at what I wanted to do for the next couple of months going into the league, I reached out to Jo and he was like, ‘This is the guy that I work with.’ From there, our relationship kind of just blossomed.

“And then even when I was in Orlando, I reached out to him and he gave me advice on different things and how the league works. Just recently, he was a huge driving force in me coming to the Sixers.”

It’s not controversial to say that Bamba has yet to meet the potential that made him a blue chip recruit out of high school and a top-10 pick. Folks have questioned Bamba’s motor and desire to play, something Bamba told those on hand was the biggest misconception about his game.

Still, he’s just 25 and possesses desirable traits for a modern big.

Bamba’s calling card coming out of college was his rim protection. That’s translated at the NBA level as the seven-footer has averaged 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes during his career. His length and athleticism also make him a legitimate lob threat. He’s the type of rim-running big the Sixers have failed to roster (outside of the newly re-signed Paul Reed).

In recent years, Bamba has also developed his outside shot. Over the last two seasons, Bamba has hit 38.3 percent of his threes on over 400 attempts — a pretty healthy sample size.

And how could Sixers fans forget the night he truly went toe-to-toe with Embiid?

After four-and-half seasons with a rebuilding Magic team and an injury-riddled stint with the Lakers after being traded to L.A. at the deadline (for new Sixer Patrick Beverley, no less), Bamba signed with the Sixers at the veteran minimum. With Embiid entrenched as the starter, Reed and Montrezl Harrell re-signed and 2021 second-round pick Filip Petrusev apparently being added to the roster, the Sixers have a glut of bigs.

But when you have versatile players like Embiid, Reed and Bamba, and a creative coach like Nick Nurse, could we see two bigs share the floor?

“I know he’s one of the most creative coaches since I’ve been in the league with the lineups he’s put out there,” Bamba said of Nurse. “If you look at his championship lineup back in (2018-19) when I came into the league, he played a lot of two bigs. He played a lot of Serge (Ibaka) and Marc Gasol at the four and five slots, and he made it work.”

A painful memory for Sixers fans, no doubt.

It was Nurse utilizing a two-big lineup with veterans Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol that helped the Raptors beat the Sixers in seven games back in 2019. Neither Ibaka or Gasol shot the ball well in that series, but their versatility on both ends allowed those lineups to work.

In Orlando, it almost seemed like the Magic were trying to build the biggest team possible. Because of that, Bamba gained experience playing next to several bigs, something he believes prepared him for the possibility of doing so in Philly.

While Bamba and Nurse didn’t specifically talk about two-big lineups, they seemed to reach an understanding of what’s expected from each other.

“It’s not necessarily something we talked about,” Bamba said of the two-big look. “I told him, ‘Listen, I understand what’s going on here. I understand that nothing will be given, everything will be earned,’ and he appreciated that. But we talked a little about his vision, where he saw the team going and how he likes to play; I know he likes to play fast. ... It was just a really encouraging conversation that I had with Coach.”

Bamba will have plenty of incentive to play well for the Sixers after what was likely a disappointing test of the free agent market. On a one-year deal, he’ll get the chance to test the waters again next offseason. We’ve seen players like Bruce Brown and Donte DiVincenzo cash in after taking short-term deals to help contenders. That was likely a factor in Bamba’s choice to come to Philly.

But you can’t discount the influence of his mentor.

“I think leading up to free agency, we chatted a little bit,” Bamba said of Embiid. “And then during it, we chatted and he was like, ‘Listen, this might sound a little crazy because we’ve been playing against each other so much, but I think the Sixers would be a great fit for you.’ I don’t know exactly what it’ll look like as far as playing together or not playing together. But I think we can play together.”

The idea of Bamba and Embiid playing together might sound crazy.

But maybe the Sixers could use a little bit of that craziness under Nurse.

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