When the Toronto Raptors signed Bismack Biyombo to a modest two-year, $5.75 million deal last summer, they had no idea how important this seemingly minor move would become. Once a cast-off from the Charlotte Hornets, the 23-year-old Biyombo has turned into a savior filling in for the injured Jonas Valanciunas in the playoffs. He's also earned himself a hefty raise this summer when he's able exercise a player option to opt out of his contract.
The latest chapter in Biyombo's NBA tale features the Congolese big man playing a major role in the Raptors erasing an 0-2 series deficit against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now Toronto is only two victories away from the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.
Before diving into how Biyombo has left his mark on the 2016 playoffs, let's go back to the beginning of his wayward journey, when the then-Bobcats took a chance on a promising but raw 18-year-old in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Biyombo in Charlotte
Biyombo came into the league with minimal offensive skills, but Bobcats owner Michael Jordan was "enamored" with the big man, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. Jordan's sentiment was shared by many, with DraftExpress writing this after a EuroCamp workout prior to the 2011 draft:
On the plus side, Biyombo's body looked great and he's still an athletic freak. His combination of length, strength agility and explosiveness is almost unheard of, causing many to marvel at his physical gifts despite the low-skill level he displayed.
Thanks to that freakish athleticism, condor-like 7'6 wingspan and tantalizing potential, Jordan and the Bobcats acquired Biyombo in a three-team deal on draft night that also brought Corey Maggette to Charlotte and sent Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and the 19th pick, Tobias Harris, to the Milwaukee Bucks.
With Charlotte rebuilding, the team thrust the promising rookie into a significant role right off the bat by giving him 41 starts in his debut season. But the team realized soon enough that Biyombo was going to be a major work in progress thanks to his limited offensive repertoire and inconsistency on the other end of the floor.
Biyombo's minutes fluctuated wildly over the course of his tenure in Charlotte, and head coach Steve Clifford even played veteran Jason Maxiell over him at times last season. Clifford explained his thought process to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer:
"He and I have been talking about this for two years now - he's got to be a more consistent effort, defense and rebounding player," Clifford said.
"His first two years (in the NBA) his team defense was somewhere between average and below average. Last year his rebounding and team defense became at times very, very good. If he can get those two areas back to that level, then he can be a very good player."
Biyombo wound up being one of the more impactful defensive players on the Hornets last season, but he didn't impress the front office enough to warrant a new contract. Charlotte selected Frank Kaminsky ninth overall and traded for Spencer Hawes last summer, giving them Kaminsky, Hawes, Cody Zeller, Al Jefferson and Marvin Williams in the frontcourt, leaving Biyombo as the odd man out. The Hornets didn't even bother tendering Biyombo a qualifying offer, instead letting him walk to unrestricted free agency.
Biyombo carves out a niche in Toronto
The Raptors were No. 23 in defensive efficiency in 2014-15, so president Masai Ujiri nabbed Biyombo on the cheap to help shore up that end of the floor. Ujiri gave the young big man some advice during a trip to South Africa for the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program (via Woj):
"He sees Hakeem, and he wants to work out with him," Ujiri told The Vertical late Saturday night. "So I called him into the room, and said, ‘Biz, with all due respect, I've had all kinds of guys go work out with Hakeem. At the end of the day, there's only one Hakeem in the world and there will never be another one. That guy was a ballerina. I don't care what you think you're going to do with that guy but ... no, forget it.'
"Go watch Tyson Chandler. Rebound. Block shots. Run. That's your bread and butter. Listen, Biz, I don't know if anyone's throwing you the ball in the post."
Biyombo took that advice to heart, anchoring a second unit alongside Patrick Patterson that was stout defensively thanks in part to Biyombo denying access to the rim. Biyombo was also great on the glass, grabbing a career-high 13 boards per 36 minutes.
Biyombo made some small strides offensively as well, but embracing his strengths made him an effective role player on a 56-win team, and it set up what was to come in the playoffs.
Biyombo breaks out
Valanciunas' ankle injury could've spelled doom, but Casey's faith in Biyombo has been paid back in kind with a scintillating breakout that's taken the playoffs by storm. Since taking over as the starter in Game 4 against the Miami Heat, Biyombo has averaged nine points, 12 boards and over two blocks in 35 minutes per contest while converting over 63 percent of his shot attempts. And over that span, he has the second-best net rating on the Raptors behind only Kyle Lowry, per NBA.com.
Biyombo's legend grew exponentially with his 17-point, 16-rebound performance in the Game 7 shellacking of the Heat, and it's continued to reach new heights with the last two Eastern Conference Finals games in "The 6." He vacuumed up a franchise-record 26 rebounds in Game 3, and his Dikembe Mutombo-esque finger wagging always fires up a home crowd that's come to love him over the course of this season:
Not backing down from the likes of LeBron James and Tristan Thompson in Game 3 only helped further endear Biyombo to the Toronto faithful, and he apparently frustrated the Cavaliers so much that noted irritant Dahntay Jones felt compelled to deliver a shot to his groin at the end of the game.
Then in Game 4, Biyombo rose to the occasion in the biggest game in Raptors franchise history. While Lowry and DeMar DeRozan took care of the scoring, Biyombo again did the dirty work by grabbing 14 rebounds (including a key offensive rebound late that helped secure the win) and blocking three shots. One of those blocks was a picture-perfect pack of Kevin Love that belongs on a poster:
Biyombo narrowly missed a highlight-reel block earlier in the game against LeBron, although only because of a dubious call:
The ground Biyombo had to cover to get into position to make a legitimate challenge on this alley-oop was incredible, and it epitomized why he's developed into one of the most feared rim protectors in the league. There are very few players who could both make that read and glide over to the spot to make a play.
Biyombo may still have a rather rudimentary offensive skill set, but his ability to patrol the paint, suck up rebounds and switch effectively makes him an increasingly valuable commodity in today's NBA. Suggestions of a max contract after he declines his player option this summer are ambitious, but Woj suggests Biyombo could fetch $12-14 million annually, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he gets a bit more than that given the salary cap spike to $92 million.
Biyombo may very well price himself out of the Raptors' range, but they're not worried about that part of his journey yet. Right now, Toronto is hoping this chapter of his story has a happy ending.