July 4, 2015
By Doug Smith
The journey has been little short of amazing — the Democratic Republic of Congo to Yemen to Spain to the United States Pacific northwest for a one-night coming out party.
Then Sacramento for less than 24 hours, to Charlotte to the unemployment line and now Bismack Biyombo finds himself in Toronto with another chance to prove his NBA worth.
The six-foot-nine Biyombo, cut adrift by the Charlotte Hornets last month because they feared he had reached his potential, will join the Raptors as a placeholder backup centre, a defensive presence and offensive nightmare who gives Toronto a shot-blocking rim-protecting presence to try to nurture.
Biyombo has agreed to terms on a two-year deal worth about $6 million (U.S.), a relatively low-cost, low-risk backup for Jonas Valanciunas.
According to league sources, Biyombo’s signing will have no impact on Toronto’s ability to sign other free agents with salary cap room. Biyombo’s deal will fit into what is known as the “mini-mid level” cap exception. Toronto still has something in the neighbourhood of $8 million to spend on a much-needed power forward and a backup point guard.
But in Biyombo, general manager Masai Ujiri has plugged one small hole in the roster, providing coach Dwane Casey with a solid defender who has exponentially more athleticism and potential than either Amir Johnson or Chuck Hayes, who manned that position a year ago.
Over 284 games in four seasons in Charlotte, Biyombo blocked 1.6 shots and hauled in 6.1 rebounds per game. He is far from a scoring threat — an average of 4.4 points per game in his career — but that is not what made him attractive to the Raptors.
Ujiri, and other NBA general managers, have been enamoured of Biyombo’s potential since he had a star turn at the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit in Portland that pits the best North American teenagers against a world select team.
Biyombo, basically unknown at the time, had a triple-double in that showcase event (12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocked shots) and it was enough to convince the Sacramento Kings to draft him seventh overall in 2012 before moving him to Charlotte in a trade.
That was the culmination of a long, odd journey for the native of Labumbashi, Congo, a trek that makes him one of the most worldly players to play for Toronto.
He was first spotted by scouts at a youth tournament in Yemen, a true basketball out-port, and he parlayed that into a stint with Fuenlabrada-Gentafe Madrid of Spain’s second division league in 2009. He spent three seasons with another second division club, CB Illescas, before playing about half a year in the highly-regarded top Spanish league with Baloncesta Fuenlabrada.
That background and his upbringing made him appreciate more the spoils that come with being an NBA player.
During one road trip to Chicago with Charlotte, he befriended a homeless man while out for a stroll and ended up taking the man to dinner, never letting on that he was an NBA player.
“We went to a good restaurant and he had to go to the bathroom,” Biyombo told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. “That was the perfect opportunity to ask, ‘Will you let us in?’ without embarrassing anyone.
“(The host) asked, ‘Are you going to pay?’ I said of course, I know it’s not free! So he said come on in.”
Biyombo’s first call after the meal? To his mom.
“She said, ‘I’m so proud of you. So often when people can afford it they forget about those who can’t. Don’t ever forget that feeling.’ ”