Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Spencer Redmond.
In their past few playoff appearances, the Toronto Raptors have suffered from a lack of athleticism, rim protection, and toughness off the bench. Although Tyler Hansbrough had the toughness aspect, it was hard to throw out the undersized Hansbrough against some of the bigger centers in the NBA, and he’s not exactly a rim-protector. During the offseason, the Raptors took a defense-first approach to player scouting, and finding that spark to back-up starter Jonas Valanciunas became a top priority. The Raptors found everything they were looking for with free agent Bismack Biyombo.
Biyombo’s trip to the NBA wasn’t the regular track, and his career so far hasn’t gone as planned, but everything has come together for Biyombo this year, to where he’s considered a key contributor to a perennial playoff team.
The 23-year-old Biyombo, was born in the southeastern area of the Democratic of Congo. Within a year of taking up basketball seriously, Biyombo became highly scouted, playing in the Congo’s first division team. After being scouted to play in the Middle East, Biyombo would attract the eyes of European coaches, playing in a tournament in Yemen, and from there he was offered to play and train in more professional Spanish teams. The route of being scouted at a young age to European teams seems to be the easiest route to the NBA for players like Biyombo and Serge Ibaka. At the age of 17, Biyombo would appear on his first professional sports team, playing the next three years in the Spainish ACB league. Biyombo was seen as a raw athlete, athletic enough to turn the heads of some NBA scouts.
In 2011, Biyombo would put his name in for the NBA draft and get to play in the Nike Hoop Summit. A pre-draft game held against the USA Men’s Junior Select Team, and the World Select Team, Biyombo would go up against future NBA players like Austin Rivers, Bradley Beal, and Anthony Davis. Biyombo would turn a lot of scouts heads posting the first and only triple-double in Nike Hoop Summit history, with 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 blocks. Biyombo was a raw talent, collecting triple-doubles without much offensive skill, and relying too much on his athleticism. Following a European pre-draft workout, DraftExpress wrote about Biyombo:
It wasn’t pretty for Bismack Biyombo, who puzzlingly did little more than confirm his clear-cut offensive weaknesses in his workout for talent evaluators. Turnaround jumpers in the key (0/5), elbow jumpers alternating sides (2/10), free throws (23/41) – you name it, he missed it. When he switched to uncontested turnaround hook shots in the paint a few more fell, but he mixed in some air balls for good measure. 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. Overall? Nothing new outside of a vividly clear illustration of just how raw his offense is at this point.
With so much room for improvement, the Charlotte Bobcats took the risk on taking Biyombo with a lottery pick at 7th, going over future star players such as Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Vucevic, and Isiah Thomas. (Technically, Sacraemento picked him and, in a draft-day deal, Biyombo was involved in a three-team trade, sending his rights to Charlotte). At such a young age, Biyombo was definitely a project for the Hornets (Bobcats), and improvements to his offensive game to complement his stellar defense would become the priority of the Charlotte coaching staff over the next few seasons.
Biyombo would struggle to find playing time in Charlotte. His development on the offensive end was keeping him from breaking through. With Al Jefferson a cornerstone piece in the franchise, Charlotte drafting Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh, and the presence of Jason Maxiell, the depth charts were never in Biyombo’s favor, and his time in Charlotte ended after the Hornets didn’t give him a qualifying offer this summer.
Enter the Raptors, in need of that athletic rim protector and nothing more out of their backup center. Biyombo’s offensive abilities are still a question to this day, as he’s most likely never going to be a threat from mid-range (he’s 10-of-30 from outside 10 feet), or a solid post up game, but you can see all the little things Biyombo does on both ends of the floor and love them for what they are.
Obviously entering the league, defense was Biyombo’s best attribute, and remains so to this day. It’s been well documented this season, the differences in the plus/minus numbers of the Raptors starting unit and bench, and Biyombo is one of the main reasons for differences in those numbers. The regular starting lineup (with James Johnson inserted for DeMarre Carroll) has a net rating of -5.5. On the other end, the Lowry, Joseph, Biyombo, Ross, Patterson lineup Net Rating is 21.9, with the astounding 93.0 Defensive Rating, 14.7 points per-100 possessions better than the starting group. The vast differences in the Raptors starting lineup compared to the bench is troublesome, as the Raptors sometimes struggle to get out of the gates in the first and third quarters. Biyombo and Cory Joseph are the key cogs that make this bench unit so productive, their defensive toughness (never quitting when a defensive possession fails) and their ability to fight through screens, are some of the main reason why this unit works so well on defense.
It starts in the middle, with Biyombo protecting the rim. Opponents have a 47.8 field-goal percentage when Biyombo guards near the rim, which is astounding considering league average is 60.1 percent. If we look at comparable rim protectors to Biyombo, names like DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, and Rudy Gobert come to mind first, three starting quality centers on good teams who get playing time for their abilities to anchor defenses.
Out of the four players, Biyombo protects the rim the best so far this season, although Biyombo plays fewer minutes and against bench bigs, his numbers still impress in comparison to some of the defensive stars of the league. The much shorter Biyombo might get fewer rebounds and fewer blocks, but his defensive intelligence and his ability to alter opponents shots is what makes Biyombo one of the elite rim protectors in the league. With Jonas Valanciunas protecting the rim, opponents are scoring 63.7% of the time, which is a career-worst number for him. Looking at the On/Off court numbers between the two, Biyombo’s Net Rating is more than double what Valanciunas’ is, and the defense is the only reason for that. Biyombo’s Defensive Rating is 99.5 compared to Valanciunas’ 107.1.
If the defense continues to be what the Raptors value the most maybe it’s time to consider starting Biyombo over Valanciunas. Valanciunas has only a slightly higher usage percentage over Scola at 20.2, and the Raptors backcourt continues to be the main focus in the offense. If Jonas isn’t getting enough touches, and hurting on the defensive end, maybe starting Biyombo for his defense and letting the backcourt continue what they do on offense is the best option for the Raptors. Biyombo’s rim protection is something the Raptors haven’t had over the past two seasons, and could help improve their playoff success moving forward.
Not starting Biyombo wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Raptors. Biyombo works well with the bench lineup due to some of the unnoticed aspects of his offensive game such as opening the floor for others to score. The starting lineup of the Raptors continues to be isolation heavy, with DeMar DeRozan ranking sixth in the league in isolation plays, and first in drives to the baskets per game. Considering how efficient DeRozan is at scoring and getting to the free throw line, it’s hard to say the isolation heavy starting lineup is a bad option. The bench unit this year doesn’t have an isolation player like a Lou Williams, and opt to play a lot of screen, drive, and kick basketball, and the result is a much more efficient bench unit this season.
The Cory Joseph/Bismack Biyombo pick-and-roll is basketball artistry at its absolute finest. Joseph’s ability to finish at the rim (66% on the season) draws a lot of defenders to the rim with him. Mix that with Biyombo setting very high screens on the floor, and having the athleticism to dive to the basket and find open spaces, makes the combination deadly.
In this video, you can see Joseph’s ability to attract Alex Len and Deonte Burton into the paint, and contort his way around to find the cutting Biyombo to the rim. While the defense sucks in on Joseph driving to the paint, surround this with 3-point shooters like Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross, and Kyle Lowry, the drive-and-kick possibilities are endless for this unit.
With Biyombo signed to a two year $5.7-million contract with a player option in the second year, the Raptors have found an absolute bargain. For the money, it’s hard to find a player who compares to the abilities of Biyombo. The rim protection, the ability to create space on offense, and without Biyombo, who knows where the Raptors would be, especially with Valanciunas hurt.