The three seasons he spent on the sidelines—duking it out with the rulebook—couldn't even dampen the level of hype that had followed him. His handiwork in this year's FilOil Flying V Preseason Premier Cup was monstrous: 23 points, 15 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game.
None of it would matter, though, if he fail to deliver the goods in the main stage. And on Wednesday, September 7, he made his much-anticipated debut in the collegiate league aka his first official shot at meeting the massive expectations resting on his broad shoulders.
In front of an anxious crowd inside the MOA Arena, Big Ben's much-hyped UAAP debut came against the defending champs, the Far Eastern University Tamaraws, a team that La Salle has had a colorful history with. The result was a gritty 83-78 DLSU win, thanks to strong performances from Jeron Teng and yes, Mbala.
With the cards on the table laid out in a particularly meaningful order, we dissected the 22-year-old Cameroonian's baptism of fire, to confirm whether Mbala's the real deal or just plain overrated.
To no one's surprise, the 6-foot-7 Mbala was simply more explosive than any Tamaraw matched up against him in the frontcourt. Others teams will surely experience this themselves firsthand soon. No point in stressing his athletic superiority over and over again. That said, here are other parts of his game that hurt the Tamaraws just as much as his physical tools did.
Playing without the ball
Seeing Big Ben impact the game without demanding the ball was truly impressive. His isolation plays couldn't have been called more than 10 times. And yet while he mostly played off the ball, he still managed to score 15 points. More importantly, through his defense, he was able to deliver a more well-rounded stint than, say, teammate Jeron Teng, who topscored wtih a game-high 28 points. It was refreshing to see a guy with that amount of talent not forcing the issue offensively. Mbala also knew how to pick his spots; he let rookie Aljun Melecio, veterans Prince Rivero and Teng shine.
The official stat says Mbala swatted 4 shots. But the attempts turned away by his mere presence was a whole lot more than his actual blocks. The inside points in half-court sets for FEU were almost non-existent because of him. If he can sustain his defensive intensity all throughout the game, he has the potential to turn into a shot-blocking menace like his tukayo from the 2004 Detroit Pistons championship team. The Final Four is a shoo-in for the Green Archers if he can keep this up.
Has good hands
What a neat set of paws this cat has. If Mbala can get a couple of fingers on a wayward pass, he'll convert an almost-turnover into a basket. Versus the defending champs, he lorded it over the glass on his way to 23 rebounds. A team that can outrebound DLSU will improve their chances of winning against them, but don't bank on it with Mbala lurking around the paint.
A good offensive game
He got most of his points through offensive putbacks and entry passes at least three feet away from the ring. Translation: easy two. That's Mbala's bread and butter on offense. When his post moves were put to the test by the Tamaraw bigs, he outsmarted them with a couple of turnaround moves. Another trick he pulled out of a bag was an one-handed 10-foot bank shot.
It's still too early to determine, however, if Mbala will be a consistent multi-dimensional scorer, judging from his timid offensive effort against FEU. But from what he was able to do so far, he seems to be on his way to becoming a better scorer than he is at the moment.
For his entire monstrosity, Mbala wasn't unstoppable. Stretches of the Tamaraws' spirited defensive run had the Green Archer behemoth turning the ball over like Stephen Curry did in the 2016 NBA Finals. On that zinging note, we now turn our focus on what makes him human.
Poor reaction to aggressive double-teaming
Mbala threw several off-target passes when coach Nash Racela's mob squad harassed him with aggressive double and triple teams. It seems like the best approach when the Cameroonian man-mountain is trying to get into scoring position. His opponents should employ such tactic when he still needs to dribble 3 or 4 times to get to the hoop, when there's still enough time to derail him. If done too late, consider an and-1, or worse, a poster.
On several occasions, when the FEU defense stifled Mbala's first move as he tried to get to the hole, his knee-jerk reaction was to take extra steps. By endgame, he had 6 TOs, mostly traveling infractions. Excellent anticipation seems to be the way to go if one wants to successfully negate his power moves. Stay in front of him might work, but be prepared to take home brown and violet-colored bruises on your chest.
Perhaps it was the comfortable 11-point La Salle lead in the third period that prompted Mbala to relax defensively. He got outhustled for some loose balls, which led to some unmolested Tamaraw baskets. This boo-boo might be a legit cause of concern for coach Aldin Ayo. Down the line, if his top center's boredom becomes a habit, it would certainly cost the team's bid of reclaiming the crown.