WESTTOWN – For the second time in three years, interest in the NBA Draft will be at a fevered-pitch at Westtown School. And the reason is simple: a former student-athlete from the private college prep school is going to be a lottery pick once again.
In 2016, Greek-born big-man George Papagiannis was selected 13th overall by the Phoenix Suns. And unless the prognosticators are all mistaken, on Thursday evening at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, another seven-footer from Westtown is going to be snapped up very early – almost assuredly in the top 10.
It will be the fruition of a prediction Westtown head basketball coach Seth Berger made not long after he first met Mohamed ‘Mo’ Bamba in 2014.
“I never had a doubt,” Berger said on Monday. “The only question — which will be answered over the next 10 years — is whether he will be a very good NBA player or one of the best.”
And with the caliber of players Berger now regularly brings to Westtown, this kind of local draft day story is going to be the norm rather than the exception. For example, Berger is already predicting that as soon as a year from now, another Westtown alum – Cam Reddish, now at Duke – will be the next.
“To think, with Mo and Cam, we had two lottery picks on one team (for 2016-17),” Berger said. “That is crazy.”
A native of Harlem, Bamba attended an all-boys boarding school in New England from grades six through nine. Thanks to a recommendation from his AAU coach Terrance ‘Munch’ Williams, Bamba looked into, and eventually picked, Westtown for the rest of his high school years.
Ranked 54th academically in his class at prestigious Cardigan Mountain School, Bamba’s first impression at Westtown wasn’t his seven-foot wingspan.
“The thing that really hit me was his intellectual capacity,” Berger recalled. “When he came to Westtown as a sophomore, he was 6-8, 186 pounds. Initially, I thought was he would be Ivy League kid.
“After one practice, I told Munch he would be a high-major recruit. And then after a week, I changed my mind again and said he would be a lottery pick.”
Rather than the adversarial relationship you often see between AAU and high school coaches, Berger and Williams agreed on a plan to oversee Bamba’s development.
“Myself and Seth, we had consistent communication,” said Williams, the head coach of the PSA Cardinals. “A lot of times there is conflict, but we aligned our goals for Mo’s personal development. As a result, his work ethic got better and his love for the game increased.”
While at Westtown, Bamba led the Moose to three straight appearances in the finals of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association including state crowns as a junior and senior.
And along the way he grew three inches and added 30 pounds. Always a prodigious rim protector and rebounder, Bamba developed his shooting touch, his ability to handle the basketball, and a knack for finding open teammates after drawing defenders.
“The good and bad when you coach a smart kid is they want to know why,” Berger explained. “They want to understand things before they can internalize it
“Mo asked me some questions that I hadn’t even thought about. You have to be ready to answer questions, but it’s nice if they are thought provoking questions. I love it. It makes everyone better.”
The nation’s top-ranked center as a senior, Bamba was the subject of an intense recruiting battle. And during his only college season at Texas this winter, he averaged 12.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game for the 19-15 Longhorns.
“I think I’ve improved, like, as far as the intangibles,” Bamba said earlier this spring.
“It seemed pretty comical at first when coach (Shaka Smart) kind of told me in the summer about putting that look on (my) face and showing that (I) care. Because when you have that look on your face, it has an effect on your teammates – it rubs off. And the next thing you know, guys are flying around, playing very hard.
“Skill-wise, I think my game is night and day from (high school). I’m just playing out there. I’m shooting with confidence. I’m getting into post moves, using my body more. It’s just fun being out there imposing my will.”
The mock drafts predict that Bamba will go anywhere from as high as fourth (ESPN) to a low as ninth (CBS Sports).
“It’s like almost impossible to not know where you are in the mock draft because people always say: ‘Mo, they have you projected at so and so,’” Bamba said.
“I try and not pay much attention to it because I’m just, you know, I’m here in the moment. I’m not quite there yet. I’m living the moment.
“I think that’s honestly the key to success, because when you start thinking about things long-term and down the road, that’s when your mind gets clouded with just things that don’t help. So I try to live in the moment as much as possible.”
Berger and Williams both acknowledged that they’ve taken numerous calls recently from NBA Scouts who are looking for insight into Bamba the person, in addition to Bamba the player.
“Scouts call and ask about Mo as a person, a teammate and a learner,” Berger said. “They already know all there is to know about him as a player. And those are easy calls to take because Mo is so smart and such a great kid.
“At the highest levels, most of this game is mental. And what separated the good from the great is the ability to process. Mo learns things right away. His ability to process information and put in into action is very impressive.”
Williams said: “Mo is the most intelligent player in this draft. He is cerebral like (New Orleans guard) Rajon Rondo. That level of basketball IQ and understanding of the game usually comes in a point guard form. (Bamba) sees thing from the (center or power forward) position, which is unique. So, as a result, he will be consistently ahead of the competition.
“He has a willingness to make others around him better. He also understands how to put his energy into winning situations. It’s not about the numbers, but rather the numbers that it requires to win. To Mo, it’s like a math problem.”
Berger is more inclined to make predictions than Williams, but neither wanted to weigh in on what exactly they expect to happen on Thursday. They do, however, agree on one thing:
“Any team would be lucky to have him. He will go super early,” Berger said.
“As long as Mo stays healthy and finds ways to enjoy the game, he will have a rewarding professional job for the next 10-15 years,” Williams added.