Year Four of the Bismack Biyombo Experiment


“Big Al” Jefferson achieved a major Charlotte Hornets milestone last season by becoming the franchise’s first All-NBA performer since the team returned to Charlotte. Jefferson exceeded expectations by leading the then-Bobcats with 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game en route to Charlotte’s first playoff appearance since 2010.

Steve Clifford’s offensive game plan has been built around Jefferson from the beginning. It should come as no surprise that Charlotte’s offense struggled last season with Jefferson on the bench and reserve center Bismack Biyombo taking his place. Biyombo could not replicate Jefferson’s offense, even just a little. The Bobcat’s second unit struggled to score in part because the offensive philosophy had to change with Biyombo on the floor.

Apr 4, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson (25) shoots a three point shot during the second half against the Orlando Magic at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Bobcats defeated the Magic 91-80. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Jefferson is a bruising big man, with limitless post moves, a deft touch around the basket and a solid mid-range game. Biyombo is a shot blocker and rebounder whose offensive game still resembles a player just learning how to play.

For better or worse, Biyombo remains a mystery in Charlotte. He was drafted 7th overall in the 2011 draft after recording the first triple-double in Nike Hoops Summit history. Biyombo was a risky pick, but was considered a Ben Wallace or Serge Ibaka-type player – one with devastating defensive abilities and a passable offensive game. By those expectations, Biyombo is a bust. Despite his limitations, the Hornets picked up Biyombo’s team option last season, guaranteeing him one more season in Charlotte with a $3.9 million price tag.

After three uninspiring years, what are we to make of Bismack Biyombo? Is there any hope for improvement, or have we seen the best of Bismack?

Biyombo couldn’t have been drafted into a worse situation in 2011. He was asked to play too many minutes and had to play alongside Byron Mullens for two miserable seasons. Like Kemba Walker, he had three different coaches his first three years in the league. With the addition of Jefferson, Clifford, and assistant coach Patrick Ewing last season, Biyombo finally had elite locker room mentors and the coaching stability all young players need.

A quick look at his numbers would signal regression last season. As you can see in the chart below, Biyombo’s per game points, rebounds, and blocks all declined in 2013-14 from past seasons and all represent career lows.

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Look closer and you will see several reasons to hope that Biyombo may be closer to figuring out the NBA game.  First, look at his field goal percentage. Bismack’s offensive game consists mainly of dunks and put-back attempts – 95 of  his 144 shot attempts were taken within three feet of the hoop – and he hit 73.7% of these shots. By comparison, Anthony Davis shot 70.4% within three feet and Serge Ibaka hit 73.1% of similar shots. Biyombo shot an impressive 61.1% from the floor last season.

Bismack’s block percentage (the number of blocks per 100 shots taken against him) improved to 6.3%, good for 7th in the league. His overall turnovers went down, but his turnover percentage (turnovers per 100 possessions) increased. Taken together, Biyombo’s Player Efficiency Rating improved to a career high 13.3 in 2013-14 and produced the best defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possession) on the Charlotte Bobcats last season.

Apr 4, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Bobcats center Cody Zeller (40) shoots the ball over Orlando Magic forward Andrew Nicholson (44) during the second half at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Bobcats defeated the Magic 91-80. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his offensive limitations, Biyombo remains the most viable option next season when Jefferson takes a breather. A Biyombo-Cody Zeller pairing makes most sense for the Hornets’ reserve front line right now. Zeller’s perimeter game and ability to get to the hoop (or foul line) are effective enough to balance Biyombo’s offensive woes. This duo should blend well with the perimeter-oriented second unit.

I continue to believe that Marvin Williams will be the starting power forward in the upcoming season. Williams will do an adequate Josh McRoberts impersonation and has the NBA savvy Clifford looks for in a “connect the dots” forward. Perhaps Zeller wins the role eventually, sliding Williams into the second unit with Biyombo. Again, all Hornets second-units will be guard heavy, but I think a Williams-Biyombo combination could hold its own against NBA reserves.

Rookie Noah Vonleh may be the biggest obstacle to Bismack’s regular playing time because pairing the two makes little sense. Vonleh is too raw offensively and not strong enough yet to defend NBA bigs. It’s tough to see a Biyombo-Vonleh front line doing anything productive. If Vonleh develops quickly, the question will become when, not if, Vonleh supplants Biyombo in the second unit. All signs point toward bringing Vonleh around slowly, so Biyombo should see regular minutes for at least the first half of the season.

The 2014-15 season is a win-win for the Hornets franchise regarding Bismack Biyombo. At the end of the day, Biyombo is a 21-year-old center prospect who rarely gets hurt and supplies above-average defense to the second unit. If he continues to improve, Charlotte could offer Biyombo a cheap, short-term contract and keep his defensive skills. If he does not progress this season, Charlotte can simply turn to Noah Vonleh and Cody Zeller, and let Biyombo enter free agency and find a new home.

What do you think about Bismack Biyombo’s future in Charlotte? Let your voice be heard in the comments section!