AUSTIN — Since Texas head coach Shaka Smart was selected to be the head coach of the USA Basketball U18 national team last April, one third of the players he coached on that team have decided to become Longhorns.
Jarrett Allen and James Banks both played for Smart at Texas this past season, with Allen heading to the NBA and Banks returning for 2017-18. The relationships Smart built coaching this team were part of what helped him recruit Oak Hill (VA) point guard Matt Coleman, but they were pivotal in getting Harlem native and Westtown School (PA) big man Mohamed Bamba to join the Longhorns’ 2017 class.
Bamba, a 7-footer and consensus Top 3 player in the country, chose Texas on Thursday over Kentucky, Duke, Michigan, and Harvard. In a story he wrote for The Players’ Tribune announcing his decision, Bamba noted that he evaluated Smart while on that USA Basketball team.
“Coach Smart may not have been aware of it, but I put him through a weeklong job interview last summer when he coached me on Team USA in Valdivia, Chile,” Bamba wrote. “We instantly formed a bond. Now, the tables have turned, and I’m the one interviewing with him, hoping to show I can play a major role in his team’s success next season.”
Much has been written about Bamba’s cerebral personality over the past few months, and his well-written and thoughtful article announcing his decision proves that quality.
“He’s a very, very unique person who happens to also be a terrific basketball player,” Smart said on Thursday. “He’s got a lot of interests. He’s got a lot of talents. Academically, he’s extremely strong. He’s very, very bright. He’s literally a kid where if you put sports aside, could have gone to school wherever he wanted to follow his academic pursuits, and that’s a big part of why he decided to come to Texas.”
Smart admitted he was not recruiting Bamba before or even during the time he was on his team in Chile. At that time, Smart was courting Allen, an Austin native, to come to Texas. It was not until after they had won the gold medal over Canada that Bamba began to show interest in Texas.
A few conversations with Smart later, Bamba, as well as his friend and future teammate in Coleman, were set to visit Texas on Oct. 29th, the same weekend as the Longhorns’ football victory over Baylor.
“Those guys spent a lot of time with our players,” Smart said.“That was very important for Mo to get a chance to know those guys and connect with those guys. I think that was a really big part of his decision, was feeling like ‘hey, these are guys I want to be around and guys I can see myself playing with.’”
According to Smart, Bamba’s strengths include skill at 7-feet, his length (7-foot-9 wingspan and 9-foot-6 standing reach), and his ability to add strength.
“He’s got a lot of offensive talent,” Smart said. “He’s got a really good skillset. He can shoot the ball. He’s someone that can step away from the basket. He can pass the ball. He can finish around the basket. There’s a lot of good things that he does.”
The time in Chile together opened the door for Bamba and Texas, but time spent in New York together cemented their relationship. In his article, Bamba wrote that his father drives a taxi “70-plus hours a week” and that he and his family also came to the decision to attend high school outside of New York to avoid some of the trouble near his home. Smart was not only able to meet Bamba’s family, as some photographs from Bamba’s article show, but also see where Bamba came from and get a closer look inside the mind of the elite player.
“He’s got an unbelievable family,” Smart said. “Like Mo, they’re all very intelligent, his family, and also very caring, loving people. I did have the opportunity in April to go spend time in his home with his family. Got a chance to walk around his neighborhood in Harlem to see where he grew up. It was eye opening for me just to be around him. I learned a lot about him and I learned a lot about his family being there. They’re special people and I really appreciate the opportunity I had to get to know them during the recruiting process.”
Bamba now joins Coleman, Houston Westfield guard Jase Febres, Aldine Davis forward Royce Hamm, Minneapolis Cristo Rey forward Jericho Sims, and Mount St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Long as members of the 2017 class.
Smart knows lots of attention will be placed on Bamba due to his stature, but he expressed excitement about the other players joining Bamba in Austin this summer.
“I’m excited about this class,” Smart said. “I understand the media is going to talk about certain guys over other guys. All these guys bring different things to the table and they have unique skillsets. My friend Cody likes to say comparison is a thief of joy. Everyone likes to compare this guy to that guy to that guy. My message to our guys is as they come in, let’s help you become the best version of yourself both in the short term and in the long term.”
While Smart’s relationships brought all these player’s to campus, there is still one more player he is trying to get to come back to Austin; Andrew Jones.
Jones declared for the NBA Draft, but did not hire an agent in order to keep open the possibility of returning to Texas. Smart said Jones still has a few more workouts left before he has to decide whether or not he will come back for his sophomore season.
“Andrew’s done a great job of just saying ‘I want to learn,” Smart said. “I want feedback. I want people to tell me what areas of my game I need to improve on, what areas do you like.’ He’s really gone into this process with big eyes and big ears. I think it’s been good for him.”
Bamba’s addition could be a factor in Jones’ decision, but that’s something up to Jones and not Smart.
“I hope so,” Smart said, on if Bamba’s decision will affect Jones. “Andrew and Mo communicated some during this process. One thing about Andrew is he’s very confident. He’s a guy, he has a belief that is a real positive quality. I think a guy like Mo can sense that.”
The major question is whether the addition of a player of Bamba’s stature will improve upon the disappointing 11-win season the Horns endured last year in Smart’s second year. Smart would not give any guarantees, but he acknowledged others in the program might be willing to.
“Just trying to win the first game,” Smart said. “I bet our guys definitely would make that guarantee. We’ve got really big goals. We’re not shying away from that. It’s important for us to focus on us. It’s easy to look around at competitors or opponents or this team or that team in the Big 12 or our non-conference schedule. If there’s anything that I learned in 8 years as a head coach, is it’s more about us. It’s more about us being connected, being in a good place, and playing as hard as we possibly can. If we’re willing and able to do those things, which I believe we will be, then I believe we have a chance to make a really, really big jump, record wise, from this past year.”