Rookie Mbah a Moute proving to be a prince of a player for the Bucks
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was the 37th pick in last June's draft
Mbah a Moute has had to defend some of the league's best scorers
The Bucks rookie is a prince in his home country of Cameroon
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is neither of a mind, nor in the position, to complain about a thing so far in his happy rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks. He would, however, make one minor tweak in the work clothes he and the Bucks wear; rather than the traditional green, red and white, Mbah a Moute would opt for green, red and yellow.
Y'know, like the pan-African colors on the flag of Cameroon. Beyond the obvious pride Mbah a Moute would take in wearing them, they might make him feel a little closer to the country that is seven hours ahead of Milwaukee on the clock, 6,517 miles away on a map and a world apart in climate, lifestyle and competition on a basketball court.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (pronounced Luke Ree-SHARD Umbah-a-MOO-the) is a rookie forward whose name pops out of Milwaukee's boxscores the way the player himself has leaped onto the NBA scene. The 37th pick in last June's draft, Mbah a Moute already has started 28 times for Milwaukee, averaging 7.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and a robust 26.3 minutes. That's more action, game in and game out, than bigger (and less phonetically challenging) names such as Greg Oden, Michael Beasley, Darrell Arthur, Brandon Rush, Anthony Randolph, Jerryd Bayless, Mbah a Moute's former UCLA teammate Kevin Love or Joe Alexander, the Bucks' top pick at No. 8.
A sturdy 6-foot-8, 230-pound wing player, Mbah a Moute has earned his minutes the way so few rookies do: By focusing and thriving defensively. Milwaukee, with Scott Skiles as head coach this season, is giving up an average of 96.7 points on 45.1 percent field-goal shooting, compared to 103.9 ppg and 48.0 percent in 2007-08, and improved its scoring differential by 7.5 points. And having Mbah a Moute as a reliable counter to the other team's best offensive threats is a key reason.
"The one great thing going for him is he's a very good individual defender," Skiles told SI.com before a recent Bucks' game at Minnesota. "Often times, rookies, what they struggle with, is picking up some of the concepts and schemes and individual defense. So he's got the one thing that he's very, very good at.
"He's very good laterally. He's got good length. He uses his hands well on defense. He's not afraid to use the core of his body to body people up. He fronts people in the low post -- he doesn't just let people catch it where they want to, he'll get people off their spots. There's an awful lot there to be excited about going forward, on the defensive end."
Mbah a Moute -- not just a native of Yaounde, Cameroon, but actually a prince, the third-youngest son of the chief of Bia Messe -- has taken his turn against all manner of NBA royalty through his first professional half-season. He has guarded bigs, smalls and everyone in between, from Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Chris Bosh and LeBron James. It's the sort of duty more typically drawn by veterans such as Bruce Bowen or Ron Artest, a player to whom Mbah a Moute has been compared at a similar point in his career.
"Maybe the best compliment he could have so early in his rookie year," Milwaukee general manager John Hammond said, "[was when] we played Philly (in the game where Elton Brand got hurt) and Scott started him and had him guarding Brand, and he did a very solid job on him. But the amazing thing to me was, in the second half, Lou Williams was taking control of the game -- one of the smallest players on the floor -- and Scott put Mbah a Moute on him. I thought Luc really contained him and somewhat shut him down. Scott couldn't stay with the matchup and had to go back to smalls, and we lost the game. But with Luc on him, I think we could have won.''
Mbah a Moute hardly was a draft night secret, after three seasons at UCLA (via a prep school in Florida) and three straight Final Four appearances. Still, his role with the Bruins, behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, left several answers blank last spring, until he opened some eyes at the Orlando pre-draft camp. Then came his individual workouts, particularly the one for Milwaukee.
"He worked out the same day, as a matter of fact, as Joe Alexander and Anthony Randolph and the kid from Syracuse [Donte Greene]," said Hammond. "So we had three first-round picks in, two of them lottery picks, and Luc. When we walked away from that workout, I think [Bucks assistant GM] Jeff Weltman is the one who made the comment: 'If you didn't have a program and know who the players were, you might say [Luc] was the best player in the workout.'"
An hour before the Bucks-Timberwolves game, Mbah a Moute and Love -- the No. 5 pick -- sat on the padded scorer's table and compared rookie notes. Nothing his college pal has done surprises Love, though he agrees that the league should be surprised.
"Luc was very limited offensively last year, not personally, but with Russell and myself, he didn't get used as effectively as he could have. We always put him on the other teams' best players last year. He's a rookie right now, but once he really figures everything out, he's going to be a special player."
Mbah a Moute remembers his springtime stop in Milwaukee and his resolve to overcome his lack of hype. That's how he approached training camp and this season, too. His offensive game still is rudimentary, but if he can work himself into a scoring threat, he'll get there soon enough.
"That was my goal, to give everything I've got, especially on defense," he said. "I've been working at it, trying to compete every night. Especially with coach Skiles' system -- it's very good, he stresses a lot of defense. So I'm very fortunate to be in this system."
Fortunate, too, to cope with trials that typically face first-year guys, from teasing teammates to flexing foes to the fellows with the whistles.
"It's tough, because with the referees, you don't have much going for you," Minnesota coach Kevin McHale said. "You get some fouls that maybe you wouldn't get later on in your career. ... I'll tell you this, if you're guarding Carmelo Anthony, and there's a lot of contact, it's not going to go in your favor."
Consider that just one of many challenges faced, and so far met, by the best NBA player in Cameroonian history. Another would be the food -- in a city long on bratwurst, kielbasa and beer, the rookie misses his maize, cassavas and yams. But then, seven years ago, Mbah a Moute still was kicking a soccer ball, not dribbling a basketball. Eight months ago, he left UCLA, after just three years, ranked 15th on the school's all-time rebounding list.
Now he's in Milwaukee, an addition who might make one of the Bucks' veteran forwards expendable via trade, without needing the sort of advance diplomatic contingent that Yi Jianlian got a year earlier to vet the Wisconsin city's Chinese culture and cuisine. With way less fanfare than even Prince of Minneapolis gets.
"They say he's a prince," Hammond said, with a wide smile. "But to us, he's a power forward."