BOSTON – If you want to get Bismack Biyombo to light up, talk to him about going from a starter in 2012-13 to a reserve with his playing time nearly halved in 2013-14.
“It’s actually one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Biyombo said.
Biyombo watched the game from a different perspective. He learned to appreciate just being in the NBA. And he read more.
One of the books he picked up, on a recommendation from Ronny Turiaf, was “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.” Biyombo said a key theme was exposing a cycle of passive learning.
“Kids growing up the way they grow up, it’s just the same thing over and over. There’s no changes,” Biyombo said. “They don’t let you make mistakes in life, to find out yourself what life is about. They tell you to listen to old people, because they know better than you, but you don’t know any better. You never learn to know better.
“As we grow up, we go to school. They tell us this is a pen, and you know it’s a pen. But nobody lets you find out that it is a pen. Nobody lets you find out that a cell phone is a cell phone. They’ve got to tell you this is a cell phone. So, it’s over and over, generation after generation.”
After generations of basketball thinkers viewing the game similarly, we’re in a new era of analysis with advanced stats and easily accessible video. The NBA is more curious than ever.
Biyombo could benefit more than most.
At face value, Biyombo – the No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft – is a bust. A good indicator is the amount of faith his own team has in him, and Charlotte gave Biyombo just 13.9 minutes per game last season and 16.3 so far this season, his fourth. Most players drafted so high get every opportunity to succeed and develop, but Biyombo has not engendered more playing time.
Since the NBA instituted rookie-scale contracts, the only players drafted so highly to play fewer than 20 minutes per game in both their third and fourth seasons (or what would have been if not dropped sooner) of their rookie deals were: Jan Vesely, Ekpe Udoh, Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Greg Oden, Adam Morrison, Shelden Williams, Jay Williams, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner, DerMarr Johnson, Chris Mihm and Robert Traylor. Whether due to poor play, injury or both, players in this situation rarely go onto lengthy NBA careers.
Can Biyombo buck the trend?
This is where the NBA’s evolving methods of analysis come in.
Biyombo leads the Hornets – a 15-24 team that has been outscored by 115 points this season – with a plus-minus of +52.
Before Charlotte beat the Knicks by 28 in its last game – pushing its win streak to five games, all with Biyombo starting for an injured Al Jefferson – Biyombo was the team’s only rotation player with a positive plus-minus.
“He’s very bright,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “The reason why his plus-minus is so good is he does what we do. He knows what’s supposed to happen, and he actually helps other guys play, too.”
Biyombo strengths and weaknesses each fall on extreme ends of the spectrum. Of the 251 players who have played as much as him this season, Biyombo ranks:
- 2nd in block percentage (behind Rudy Gobert)
- 7th in rebounding percentage (behind Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Omer Asik, DeMarcus Cousins and Zach Randolph)
- 11th in field-goal percentage (behind Brandan Wright, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Rudy Gobert, Ed Davis, James Johnson, Tyler Zeller, Mason Plumlee, Dwight Howard and Amir Johnson)
- 240th in free-throw percentage (ahead of Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Andre Roberson, Elfrid Payton, Nerlens Noel, Mason Plumlee, Dwight Howard, Miles Plumlee and Larry Sanders)
- 246th in usage percentage (ahead of Andre Roberson,Miles Plumlee,DeAndre Jordan,Joe Ingles andJason Thompson)
- 236th in turnover percentage (ahead of Kendrick Perkins, Shabazz Napier, Rajon Rondo, Samuel Dalembert, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston, Zach LaVine, Elfrid Payton, Steve Blake, Joe Ingles, Michael Carter-Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni and Evan Turner)
- 251st in assist percentage
Essentially, Biyombo makes the most of his 7-foot-6 wingspan and impressive athleticism where he can. Anything that involves him skillfully using hands becomes more troublesome.
He does little things – setting good screens and rotating properly defensively are two Clifford pointed out – that don’t show up in the box score. When I watched him play, I noticed him frequently moving back and forth from one side of the paint to the other to avoid clogging any driving lanes. That energy helps, considering Biyombo – who has never made a shot beyond 17 feet in his career – can’t space the floor traditionally. I’m not saying Biyombo’s plus-minus makes him Charlotte’s best player or even good, but it’s a number that should encourage closer inspection of his game.
Perhaps, Biyombo is bound to fill a limited role the rest of his career. The right team could certainly put him in position to succeed with these skills.
But don’t completely discount the possibility of Biyombo developing into a more well-rounded player.
He’s still just 22, the second-youngest player in his draft class (behind only No. 46 pick Davis Bertans, who has yet to play in the NBA and whose rights are held by the Spurs). In fact, Biyombo is younger than a third of the players selected in the most recent draft, including first rounders Doug McDermott, Adreian Payne, Mitch McGary, Shabazz Napier, Bogdan Bogdanovic, C.J. Wilcox and Josh Huestis.
Heck, it’s even possible Biyombo tries to make that next step in Charlotte. But it seems unlikely with Jefferson around. Neither shoot well enough to space the floor, and they’ve yet to share the court since Jefferson joined the team.
The Hornets can extend Biyombo a qualifying offer this summer to make him a free agent. That’ll cost them $4,045,894 – or, if Biyombo somehow plays 2,000 minutes or starts 41 times this season, $5,194,227. Really, Biyombo continuing to play such a limited role – he’ll surely return to the bench once Jefferson gets healthy – might help him next offseason. The qualifying offer, which Charlotte is more likely to extend if it’s lower, wouldn’t be a bad salary for the big man.
Until then, he seems happy in his current situation.
Another book Biyombo read last season was “La Buena Suerte.” A theme of that one, written in Spanish (Biyombo speaks five languages), as described by Biyombo:
“Make your own luck,” Biyombo said. “Go after what you want. Know what you want, and do what you really want. And obviously, when you’re finished, whatever you’ve done, don’t have any regrets.”
Biyombo said he wants to play basketball as long as he can and win an NBA title. How long will he last in the league? Will he help a contender?
It really depends what teams see for themselves when they look at Biyombo.