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PULLMAN, WA - DECEMBER 4: Washington State Men’s Basketball versus USC Trojans at Beasley Coliseum - TJ Bamba

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The impending TJ Bamba breakout

He has emerged as a leader on and off the court, but what might his junior season look like?

Jack Ellis/CougCenter

TJ Bamba is entering his junior season at Washington State and every Coug fan is anticipating another huge jump in his production.

Bamba had an up-and-down freshman season, but he followed that with an excellent sophomore year where he emerged as a leader and starter. Bamba started exactly half the games last season — 16 of 32 — but he likely will start every game this season if he is healthy. Of all players who played over 200 minutes for the Cougs, he was 4th in usage rate behind three players who are no longer on the team. Bamba is poised to take a step-up in both efficacy and role for the Cougs this upcoming season.

The jump Bamba took from his freshman to sophomore year was impressive. He played seven more minutes a game and saw bumps in his scoring, rebounding, and defensive stats, going from 4.2 points a game to 7.7, 1.6 rebounds to 3.4, and 1.1 stocks (steals and blocks) to 1.5.

The counting stats don’t tell the whole story though. Bamba’s biggest issue as a freshman was his turnovers. He was constantly picking up charges or losing his handle, leading to a 27.7% turnover rate. Bamba gained a lot of control and put in the work to get that number down, slashing it to an impressive 12.5%. He could still cut out some turnovers — and boosting his assist rate from 6.3% would help, too — but that impressive fix of his biggest weakness exemplifies his work ethic and commitment to the craft.

When breaking down the potential paths for Bamba’s improvement, it was easy to identify what he already excels at. Bamba is a powerful driver, solidly efficient shooter, and a staunch on-ball defender. However, there are certainly holes in his game that came both from his own deficiencies and the role he was in. He was not asked to be a playmaker last season, and his usage in the pick-and-roll was minimal — only 35 possessions, per Synergy. His most common play types last season, by far, were spot-up situations and transition, but he will likely be forced to initiate some offense this year.

Off-Ball Proficiency

PULLMAN, WA - FEBRUARY 12: Washington State Men’s Basketball versus the Arizona State Sun Devils at Beasley Coliseum - Washington State guard TJ Bamba (5)
Bamba is a weapon when teams have to close out on him.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Bamba’s best skill, as of now, is how he plays off-the-ball. His combination of shooting efficiency and athletic prowess force the defense to be aware of where he is at all times. Teams did not always treat him like a true sniper, but he was confident (89 attempts) and efficient enough (36%) taking that shot that it was almost always a good look for the Cougs. That off-ball play will continue to be a big part of his game.

The best Bamba plays come from when he is attacking a tilted floor decisively. He can explode with a quick first-step to get downhill and, if the defense is not ready, he can finish with power. A defense has to be completely on-top of their rotations because he gets to the paint so quickly that late rotations might as well not be rotations at all.

The next step for Bamba is leveraging that off-ball driving to make plays for others. This is a great move to rotate the defense even more and open up a simple dumpoff for Gueye at the rim. He does not have to make incredibly complex reads because teams will be scrambling to keep him from the rim, but making simple dumpoffs and kickouts would open up so much for his team offensively.

Bamba’s 3-point percentage is elite, but it was a big improvement from his complete hesitancy to shoot during his freshman year — and he grew more and more comfortable over the course of the year. The load is a bit slow, but he was more than willing to let it fly if a defender didn’t close out, and it usually looked good.

Bamba occasionally sped up the shot when introducing some movement and it looked better than expected. He is not someone who is looked at as a high-volume movement shooter, but simple right to left movement gets him setup and into the shot quickly. Hitting these shots consistently would force teams to guard him tighter, opening more up for himself and teammates going forward.

Something that goes underrated about Bamba’s game is his understanding of space — and that will be even more potent with the improved passing on this year’s team. He is a consistently good cutter and relocator who excels in transition. Playing with better passers, as well as improved size and shooting around him, will highlight this off-ball movement even more.

On-Ball Upside

PULLMAN, WA - MARCH 3: Washington State Cougars Men’s Basketball versus the Oregon State University Beavers at Beasley Coliseum - Washington State guard TJ Bamba (5)
Bamba can take a step forward by making plays for others in these situations.
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Last season, Bamba ran 35 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and struggled mightily, efficiency wise. The team scored only .68 points per possession on those play types, which ranked in the 20th percentile per Synergy. There are other types of on-ball play types, like isolation, where he scored .72 points per possession on 18 possessions, but pick-and-roll is the most vital development point for Bamba to reach his upside. This season, Bamba will answer the question as to whether or not he can handle a solid volume of on-ball reps efficiently.

There are some solid building blocks for Bamba to build his on-ball game upon. The most apparent is his prowess as a driver. He gets paint touches with regularity, and making consistent plays for others on these drives is a major key. He has moments as a passer that are solid, and making these reads more often would be a major boost for Bamba’s all-around offensive package.

He was a little hurt by playing with two non-shooting bigs last season because he was not great at playing in tight spaces. Having better shooters around him this year will open up the paint more and allow him to make plays. He had a lot of drives where he could get a step, but the bigs hardly had to rotate to cut him off so it led to very little. That should happen less often this year, as opponents will have to account for three potentially elite shooters (Justin Powell, Jabe Mullins, Andrej Jakimovski) playing next to him at all times.

A major thing Bamba could improve on this season is the ability to slow down. He plays at 100 miles an hour 95% of the time, but slowing himself down from that speed on drives would open up a lot more options for him once he gets into the paint. Plays like this show off the issues with his one-speed track, as this is the type of finish that requires a slower pace to complete. This is something Bamba has already gotten better at between seasons, so another jump certainly is possible.

The passing is the main swing skill for Bamba going forward. As mentioned, the numbers on his passing have not been great, but there are some positive signs. He made some solid reads on plays in front of him — simple dumpoffs and kickouts against already tilted defenses — but his occasional flashes of true pick-and-roll passing are enticing. This was arguably the best pass of the year last season and hopefully this chemistry can continue to grow as they run a higher volume of pick-and-roll together.

Defensive Projection

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most important thing that Bamba will be asked to do is guard the opposing team’s best player. He has some strong positive traits as a defender with his plus strength, quickness, and wingspan — per Synergy, Bamba ranked in the 74th percentile in overall halfcourt defense, including holding opponents to an impressive 32% on two-point shots. Some of those numbers are boosted by playing next to elite rim protectors, but a lot of it falls to Bamba’s credit as well.

That said, there are also some areas to tighten up if he is going to be the primary defensive stopper for the Cougs.

The best aspect of Bamba’s defensive game is his strength. He’s a natural choice to guard big wings who rely on strength to score because Bamba absorbs contact like few others. He is a brick wall out there, and his ability to take contact into his chest and not move an inch makes it impossible for wings to get great looks when posting him up or when driving through his chest.

Bamba uses his strength to shut down drives consistently. Players have to get a full step on him to get by because half-step advantages are negated if Bamba can get his chest to the handler. He also uses his length to keep counter moves at bay. Glenn Taylor Jr loves this behind the back move when his drives are cut off, but Bamba anticipates and pokes the ball away instead.

Bamba also excels with his activity on defense. He is always trying to make plays and force the offense into bad positions. He can be almost too active at times, but when it looks good, it helps him make up for some of his weaker points on defense.

Bamba’s hustle led to some real standout plays. Here, he tracks Taylor through a down screen, denies the pass, plays a handoff perfectly, and takes what should have been a charge before recovering and staying in the play. This hustle is not only effective as a tool for guarding on the ball, but also for keeping the WSU defense as a whole aggressive and engaged.

Bamba posted a solid 2.2% steal rate last season, and that could take even another step up as he is asked to do more on defense. His hands are incredibly quick, his length allows him to get into the opponent’s handle, and his strength makes it hard to drive through him even if he gambles. His ability to create steals on the ball is fairly rare for college players and it leads to easy buckets on offense.

Even when it doesn’t result in a steal, Bamba is always getting his hands in the grills of playmakers and it makes them uncomfortable. Taylor, who was one of the best freshman in the conference last year, was in jail against Bamba because he couldn’t use his size to create in the post, he wasn’t quick enough for consistent blowbys, and his handle was just a little too loose and exploitable.

Something Bamba was not asked to do much last year (because of the two-big rotation) that he might have to do some this year is make rotations as the low-man. The low-man is the player who rotates into the paint when the usual shot-blocker is out of position. This player is generally another big or forward, but Bamba has the bounce and strength to pull off contests at the rim without fouling.

Bamba’s defensive rotations are overall good, even if they are sometimes a step behind. He is good at recognizing where someone needs to be and trusting his teammates to cover “his guy” as he goes to help. This rotation as a big is fronting is great because usually the player that sinks over is guarding a corner shooter, but the corner is unfilled, so Bamba recognizes that he is the low-man and he sprints to double and prevent an easy bucket.

Bamba also plays passing lanes well and that helped contribute to his 2.2% steal rate. He is good at reading ball-handlers and his explosiveness allows him to get to balls that hang in the air. This is an incredibly athletic defensive play that Bamba makes look easy because he is so smooth moving through space:

Bamba’s main issue as a defender is that he struggles to change directions quickly. He can give up blowbys while shading one way because his hips don’t swivel as fast as some on-ball defenders. This is not a major negative when guarding wings, but if he is asked to guard point guards at the point of attack every game, it might become an issue with less rim protection behind him.

Bamba also has some slight gambling issues. It is not extreme, but about once a game he takes himself out of play by jumping a passing lane too late or reaching on a ball-handler to no avail. These are the types of things you live with, especially because he is so prolific at creating turnovers, but without Efe Abogidi behind him, it might lead to some unwanted layups and rotations.

Overall, Bamba is a more than solid positive on the defensive end. He can guard some of the top players in the conference at the wing or forward spots and he has some moments when guarding guards. There are some worries as to what it might look like when he guards the point of attack for a majority of possessions — as he might this season — but he will certainly provide positive value on that end.

Role and Upside

PULLMAN, WA - DECEMBER 4: Washington State Men’s Basketball versus USC Trojans at Beasley Coliseum - TJ Bamba Jack Ellis/CougCenter

There are outcomes where Bamba is the most vital player on this year’s WSU team. He is likely the best perimeter defender on the roster and his off-ball offense is already great. On top of his already solid skill sets, he likely will be asked to take a bit of a jump in usage and role on offense. Increasing his pick-and-roll volume while continuing to grow as a playmaker would open up a lot for the team as a whole. This roster is talented, but there is not a for-sure go-to scorer or defender on the perimeter. Bamba could potentially be that guy for the Cougs this year.

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