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Westtown star Mohamed Bamba tries to stay cool as spotlight grows brighter

WESTTOWN >> If the subject is Westtown School superstar Mohamed (‘Mo’) Bamba, the platitudes seem to come in waves.

Westtown’s Mohamed Bamba soars for a rebound in a game last season. (PETE BANNAN – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA)

From opposing players, from high school and college coaches, and from the scouting services, they all rave about Bamba’s skills: his 7-foot-8 wingspan, his defensive prowess, his agility for a big man and, especially, his long-term potential. As the nation’s top-ranked senior high school center, his basketball credentials are undeniable.

And you would be hard pressed to find a bigger Bamba advocate than Westtown head coach Seth Berger, who is predicting future NBA greatness. But when asked about the 6-foot-11 Harlem native, Berger focused on his mental skills, like commitment and unselfishness. How Bamba was a key member of Team USA, which won the gold medal in the 2016 FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship, but was more impressed when Westtown captured the school’s first state title a year ago.

“Mohamed is committed to this community,” Berger said.

Prevailing in the eight-team international tournament in Valdivia, Chile, last summer would be a pinnacle for most. But Bamba relished Westtown’s Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA) title even more.

“It was big,” Bamba acknowledged. “It was one of the shining moments in my life. We went to the finals the year before and we fell short. And after winning it, I realized how big it was and how much it meant to so many people.”

Westtown is back in the PAISAA playoffs as the top overall seed, and is staring down a semifinal date with Germantown Academy or Penn Charter Friday night at Malvern Prep. The title game is scheduled for Saturday at Malvern Prep, where Westtown would face either Episcopal Academy or The Hill School.

“It was similar in Chile, but winning the state championship was more personal,” Bamba said. “Being on the U-18 team was no joke because I was surrounded by such elite company. But when you are competing for your school, it’s very personal.”

A UNIQUE SKILL SET

Bamba is not your average all-state standout. You don’t become scout.com’s No. 2 overall high school prospect in the nation without possessing a unique set of skills. For instance, Bamba can control a game simply with his presence at the defensive end. He is a prodigious rim protector, who swats away and alters shots more effectively, perhaps, than any high school player in the country. And he is a rebounding machine who often triggers the fast break with pinpoint outlet passes.

But before you label Bamba simply a back-to-the-basket post-player, consider this: he can step out and bury the 3-point shot; he can handle the basketball in the open-court; and he can draw defenders and find an open teammate. He can do it all.

“He could score zero points and literally dominate a game,” Berger said. “But he is also a really good scorer. He shots threes well and he scores around the basket.

“He has the brain of a point guard in a center’s body, and now he’s got the skills of a guard. So he is effectively position-less.”

That’s why Bamba is currently the subject of a furious four-school race to see who can land the nation’s top undecided recruit. He’s officially received 22 college offers, but let’s be honest: he could conceivably go wherever he wants.

As an aside, he considered Harvard at one point.

He’s whittled it down to four finalists: Kentucky, Duke, Texas and Michigan. The recruiting message boards are filled with rumors, anecdotes and speculation, and Bamba is hounded at every turn with questions about where he might be leaning. Most tire of the recruiting process in a hurry and make a commitment as soon as possible, but Bamba is different.

“I’ve actually enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s given me a chance to bond with my family as we try to come to a consensus for what’s best for me.

“Honestly, it’s my decision. I want to gain as much information about all of the schools. Each school has something that I value.”

DECISION DAY LOOMS

Many of the top college prospects signed a National Letter of Intent during the early signing period last November. Bamba has yet to announce a timetable for his decision, but has hinted that he’d prefer to make it official after the NCAA Tournament concludes April 3, but before the regular signing period begins April 12. The deadline is May 17, when the signing period ends.

Seeing his players undergo intense recruiting attention is nothing new for Berger, but he always tries to stay out of it. That’s especially true with Bamba, who Berger predicts will be a one-and-done college player.

“He is not close to a project,” Berger said. “He is going to college because the rules say he can’t go right to the NBA. He is ready to play in the NBA today.”

The founder and former CEO of the And1 athletic shoe and apparel company, Berger has built Westtown into a national power over the last decade by attracting top-notch talent to the Quaker boarding school. Former players include Daniel Ochefu, who started for Villanova’s 2016 national title team, and Jared Nickens, currently the sixth man at Maryland.

“I don’t know when (Bamba) is going to decide — I don’t even worry about it,” Berger said.

“I stay out of recruitment. Whereever he goes, he will be there for one year and he’ll be great.”

Bamba’s older brother, Sidiki Johnson, was a top-100 recruit six years ago. He eventually chose Arizona, and has become a valuable advisor during the recruiting process along with Mo’s mentor, Greer Love.

“Sidiki told me to take my time, and obviously that’s what I am doing,” Bamba said. “I am trying to do what’s best for me.”

Like his brother, Bamba was nominated as a potential participant to the prestigious McDonald’s All-American Game, which has showcased the premier high school stars for the last four decades. But unlike Sidiki, Mo grabbed one of the 24 roster spots, and will be playing for the East Squad in the 2017 game, to be held March 29 at the United Center in Chicago.

“My brother was nominated and he would have made it if he didn’t get injured,” Mamba said. “For me, to even be a nominee was such a shock. I’ve been hearing about the McDonald’s All-American Game since I was a little kid.”

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Born on May 12, 1998, Bamba grew up on the hardscrabble streets of New York City. His parents, Lancine and Aminata Bamba, are immigrants from West Africa. His grandparents hail from Mali.

“My parents don’t really understand basketball,” Bamba said. “They get the basic concept of scoring, but they really don’t really have a true concept of it … and I really don’t mind. Some parents can get real crazy with their kids’ sports.”

His introduction to basketball came at an early age at a legendary playground in his Harlem neighborhood on 115th Street between Malcolm X Boulevard and 5th Avenue. Nicknamed “The Kingdom,” the outdoor court is nestled between the Martin Luther King housing projects.

“It’s right on the block where I grew up,” Bamba explained. “It’s where it all started for me. It was kind of the safe-haven where I live. Harlem isn’t the safest place in the world.

“Guys who are really familiar with the area call it ‘The Circle.’”

For a quarter century, it was the site of the Kingdom Classic, a summer street-ball tournament that featured New York playground legends like Walter Berry, Ed Pinckney and Ron Artest.

“It was a very big deal when I was six years old,” Bamba recalled. “That’s where my love of the game first started. There is no other basketball like the street-ball in Harlem. It’s legendary.”

And it was on the court at the Kingdom where Bamba’s appreciation for defense first took hold.

“To me, offense wins games but defense will win championships,” he said.

“I just take pride in playing defense. Where I come from, if you get scored on three times in a row, you are not playing the next game. So I kind of apply that as much as possible to all levels that I play.”

FINDING HIS WAY TO WESTTOWN

From grades six through nine, Bamba attended Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H., an all-boys boarding school. So when it came time to pick a high school, Westtown’s leafy, rural setting wasn’t a shock to the system of a city kid. Bamba looked at a lot of schools in New England, but it came down to Westtown and Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.

“My AAU basketball coach told me about Westtown and said it would be a good all-around fit,” Bamba said. “He didn’t even mention athletics.

“I came, toured, and fell in love with Westtown. So I applied and got in. This was where I wanted to be.

“I obviously like the city, but I also knew that this was ultimately going to be the place for me. I was used to being in a rural setting, so it wasn’t big cultural shock because of Cardigan.”

A 6-foot-8, 186-pound sophomore when he arrived at Westtown in 2015, Bamba was more of a basketball project than a sure-fire superstar. He says that the biggest initial adjustment was applying to the Quaker lifestyle. His new teammates, Jair Bolden (now at George Washington University) and Nickens, helped with the transition.

“They described Westtown as different,” Bamba said. “It just embodies a whole different mentality than most schools. I liked how the students interact with each other, and the student-to-teacher ratio is great. At most schools, the teachers are dominant in almost every aspect, but here it’s very much student-led.”

Berger remembers first meeting Bamba in the admissions office prior to his sophomore year.

“When he introduced himself, he had the charisma to where I thought he could some day be the president of the United States,” Berger said.

“He was the 54th ranked player for his age group when he came here. He was projected as an Ivy League kid. After his first practice, I said he’s a high-major kid. And after a week, I said he will be a one-and-done lottery pick.”

If a player wants to be a big fish in a little pond, they don’t come to Westtown these days. Berger has filled the roster with Division I talent like Bolden and Nickens.

This season, there are five sure-fire college prospects including 6-foot-6 Brandon Randolph, Anthony Ochefu (6-8), Jake Forrester (6-9) and Cameron Reddish (6-7). A shooting guard, Randolph has signed with Arizona and Ochefu is a power forward headed to Stony Brook. Reddish and Forrester are juniors who are being recruited by big-time programs like Duke, Kentucky and Indiana.

“Some might not like to share the spotlight, but it excites me because I wanted to play against the best,” Bamba said. “And to have success against the best, you have to have the best team with you.”

GROWING UP, AND OPENING UP

Some have compared Bamba’s game to the recently retired Kevin Garnett, who played 21 seasons in the NBA and was a 15-time all-star. Berger says he is a combination of Bill Russell on the defensive end, and Kevin Durant on offense.

“Mo is so unique,” Berger said.

“He is the best shot blocker I’ve ever seen in terms of timing, anticipation, and avoiding fouls. The other thing is, he catches and taps so many shots. He starts fast breaks, instead of just sending them out of bounds.”

In 10th grade, he helped Westtown win the Friends School League title and advance to the PAISAA state championship game, but the Moose lost the game to Phelps. A year later, Bamba had developed into a force in the middle, and Westtown topped Episcopal Academy for the crown, 56-42.

“That was the first state title, in any sport in school history, and Westtown’s been around since 1799,” Berger pointed out. “He helped lead us to something significant, and I know he wants to do it again.

“As he’s grown up at Westown, he’s learned to trust his teammates and coaches. He’s opened himself up more to being a part of a team. And the more he opens up, the more they get to see of Mo. And the more we see, the more we love him.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some challenges along the way. According to his coach, Bamba is intelligent and inquisitive, which means a lot of questions and a lot of explanations while he advances as a student of the game.

“That can be a challenge,” Berger said. “He isn’t going to always do what you want him to do unless you give him a sound reason why. It makes me better as a coach because I have to be really prepared.

“But coaching him a pleasure. Mo is a high character kid and whenever he walks into a room, the average IQ always goes up.

“During games, he’ll see things and tell me we should make an adjustment. For example, if we are playing a zone and the opposition shoots threes, he’ll say, ‘Maybe I should play the forward position so I can contest threes better.’”

LOFTY PROJECTIONS, BIG DECISIONS

Bamba’s gained three inches and about 30 pounds since he arrived at Westtown. DraftExpress.com is now projecting him as the No. 3 overall prospect for the 2018 NBA Draft. But he knows to fulfill those lofty projections, he will have to bulk up even more and increase his strength and stamina.

“It’s something I’ve already started,” Bamba said. “I am slowly but surely changing my diet. At the college level, it’s going to be about putting on the right weight and not just putting on weight.”

Right now just about all of the experts believe that wherever Bamba ends up in college, it will be a quick one-year stint and then on to the NBA. But not the kind of person who rushed into decisions, Bamba is not so sure.

“I want to get my college degree, but I also love basketball and want to test myself against the best competition in the world, and that’s what the NBA is,” he said.

“When the time comes, I will look at it.”

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