Texas landing a commitment from Mo Bamba — a top three prospect in the Class of 2017, a potential top five pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and a kid that was chased by both Duke and Kentucky throughout his senior season in high school — is a bigger deal than people are giving it credit for.
And on this surface, this is big, both literally (Bamba is 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan; one top 25 coach referred to him as “a dinosaur”) and figuratively (he’s the highest-rated recruit to pick the Longhorns since that Durant guy).
Bamba is the kind of player that is, in theory, a season-changer. He’s as dominant of a defensive prospect as we’ve seen come through the ranks of American basketball and, given his wingspan and shot-changing prowess, the potential to be a Rudy Gobert-esque presence around the rim.
That’s critical for Texas and head coach Shaka Smart given the way that Smart wants to play. When he was still at VCU, Smart thrived using a style that he dubbed ‘Havoc’, which featured a full-court pressure, aggressive man-to-man defense and traps all over the floor. It’s an aggressive, gambling style of play that becomes just that much more difficult to deal with for opposing offenses when there is a shot-blocker in front of the rim. Bamba’s presence would make it easier to overplay passing lanes, to gamble for steals and to switch all exchanges — which, essentially, is what Smart wants to do on that end — because mistakes will not end up leading to layups, not with Bamba back there.
With Andrew Jones, a former five-star combo-guard, expected to return for his sophomore season, Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis back for another year and the addition of four-star Matt Coleman, a more natural fit at the point guard spot, along with three more top 100 prospects, suddenly a Texas program coming off of a last-place finish in the Big 12 has a reason to be optimistic.
Because let’s call it like it is: This is pivotal season for Smart.
He’s been at Texas for two years. In his first season, he took Rick Barnes’ roster to the NCAA tournament playing a way that wasn’t exactly what you would expect from a team that he coaches. Last year, with a roster that was very young but mostly filled with players that Smart had recruited into the program, the Longhorns were dreadful. Their point guard play was lacking, their leading scorer never returned to the floor after a January suspension and their best player during Big 12 play, Jarrett Allen, went the one-and-done route.
This year is the year that defines the narrative of Smart’s tenure.
It’s his program now, through and through, and until Bamba committed, there wasn’t all that much reason to believe that Texas was bound for a major turnaround.
There is now.
It’s not crazy to think that the Longhorns could end up finishing in the top four in the Big 12 next season. I won’t do it, but I’m not sure it’s wrong Texas in a preseason top 25.
And that all happened because Smart was able to outduel Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari on the recruiting trail.
Smart has been the head coach at Texas for more than two full years now, long enough to miss an NCAA tournament and have his name linked to open jobs in lesser leagues that are nowhere near as prestigious as Texas is — it’s widely considered a top five job in the coaching industry, but he finally has Texas heading in the direction of a place many thought it would be after he was hired.
Whether or not it gets there remains to be seen.
But there’s no questioning just how important Bamba’s commitment was, to Texas and to Shaka Smart himself.