It was (somehow) just one season, but Bismack Biyombo made an impact on the Raptors organization and its fan base that few who have come through Toronto have.
His role on the 2015–16 Toronto Raptors, the most successful team in franchise history and the only one to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, was built on effort, energy and the ability to rise to the occasion when called upon in big moments.
In the summer of 2016, Biyombo signed a lucrative deal with the Orlando Magic. Judging by the win column — 47 wins in 142 games — it’s been a struggle with his new team, but the 25-year-old centre sees the hard times as an important opportunity to grow as both a player and leader, and looks forward to the day he can return to the playoffs and rise to the occasion once again.
Still can't believe this was a foul. What an amazing block by Bismack Biyombo on LeBron James! https://t.co/jtw31VKC8m
— NBA SKITS (@NBA_Skits) May 24, 2016
With his former team in Orlando for Wednesday’s Raptors-Magic game, I caught up with Biyombo to speak about watching his ex-teammates grow, playing under pressure, and why the Raptors’ “brotherhood” is strong as ever.
SN: Does tonight’s game versus the Raptors feel any different for you?
I am excited, for sure, but if this were a playoff game it would be a whole different story. It’s exciting to be able to play against your friends and ex-teammates, but I have to look at [tonight] as more or less just another game. I have a history with those guys, but I’m still focused on getting better and achieving my goals.
Looking at your matchups tonight, do you even have to bother reading the scouting report for guys like Jonas Valanciunas or Serge Ibaka, who you’ve already played with?
You play so much with some of those guys that I don’t really have to look at the scouting report to know how they’re going to play. It’s just a matter of staying focused and competing.
That’s just human nature — when you study somebody and practice against them you’re going to get to know their strengths and weaknesses.
But it’s also important to remember that every summer players are getting better, they add something to their game. There isn’t a single player in the league that comes back the same player they were the season before.
For example: Valanciunas is averaging more than one three-point attempt per game since the start of 2018 — and shooting 50 per cent in that span. Did you see that one coming?
Did I ever think he was going to shoot threes in a game? No.
But I’ve seen him practice it the year that I was in Toronto, so I knew he was capable. I’m glad he’s shooting it with confidence and that the coaches are allowing him to shoot it. That’s great.
But when I get on the floor it’s not like my focus is on JV shooting threes. If you study the team, the overall strategy is still about how you’re going to guard the pick and roll with Kyle and DeMar.
You already have a well-defined skill-set. But has a coach tried to get you to extend your range and pull you out to the perimeter?
Honestly I’ve worked on it and gotten better at it — if I have an open shot I’ll definitely take it.
But, you know, the whole thing about the league shifting to shooting threes, this and that, big men shooting jumpers — when the playoffs start you don’t see that. And I always go back to that: If my team goes to the playoffs then how can I make the biggest impact?
When you watch the playoffs the past few seasons, and we’re going to see it this year again, all of the things that happen during the regular season go away to an extent. So I always keep that in mind and that’s how I approach my game, in terms of how it will all translate to the playoffs.
You won’t be in the playoffs this season and the Magic are a team looking long-term. How has the adjustment been going from a situation in Toronto where you have the opportunity to experience playoff basketball to a younger, developing team?
It’s tough. It’s tough because you have to face new challenges both on the floor and on a personal level. On the other hand, one of my mentors growing up once told me that losing tests your ability to get better. That’s how this situation [in Orlando] has helped me a lot. I’ve been able to grow aspects of my game and to help learn how to lead my teammates.
So if we do reach the playoffs next season, I know exactly how I can excel to the fullest because I’ve done the preparation and know how to better handle my teammates in those crucial moments. For now, we still have young guys who haven’t experienced that yet. It’s tough, but at the same time I see it as an opportunity to grow.
The game is much easier for me when it comes down to the playoffs. When the game matters the most.
Was that something you learned through your experience in Toronto?
Honestly, I feel like I’ve excelled in every big moment I’ve faced in life — including when I first came to the United States for the Nike Hoop Summit. [Ed. note: The Hoop Summit is an annual exhibition for high-school aged prospects from around the world to play in front of college and pro scouts. In 2011, a relatively unknown Biyombo posted 12 points, 11 boards and 10 blocks. It was the first triple-double in Hoop Summit history.]
That was the game that changed my life and I was able to seize the opportunity. I was made for big moments.
When games are on the line, when it’s about competing for something, those crucial moments, I believe I was made for that. My whole vibe, my mental approach, the way I prepare, even the way I dress… everything changes.
And it was like that before I came to Toronto.
At the Hoop Summit, people had never seen me before, and there were a lot of high draft picks — Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Austin Rivers. When I got there people were telling me I wasn’t going to play much in the game. I love that challenge. So when I got to the airport I went straight to the gym and started practising. I wanted to make a statement.
My point is: I cherish the big moments and I love to be challenged and put up against the wall.
And the reason Toronto was fun is because it was pretty much us versus the world. And it’s still like that! There was that thing recently where they asked “Who’s going to win the championship?” And the options were Golden State, Houston, Cleveland, and ‘Other.’ I loved those challenges.
I’d go to restaurants before the playoffs and people would tell me ‘You guys are going to get swept,’ or ‘You’re not going to get past the first round.’ Good. I love that. ‘You’re not going to get past the second round.’ Good. I love that.
That brought out the best in me. A lot of guys reach the playoffs and they become nervous, they play tight. That’s where it was easy for me to excel. During the regular season— it’s a long season— guys will play hard in some moments and not in others. In the playoffs you have to go 100 per cent, every possession. How many players can do that? That’s the difference.
Do you still feel a connection to Toronto and the Raptors franchise and fan base?
Always! I still have friends there — friends who have turned into family.
But for me it always comes back to the brotherhood. That’s something we were able to build, and it’s still strong for all of us. I see players I played with in Toronto [and] that feeling is still there. I just saw Patrick Patterson when we played OKC the other day, and was so excited to see him — we had a great conversation. And every time I see Kyle, DeMar, Cory Joseph, all the players that were on that team, I walk away feeling like we built a great brotherhood that continues today.
At the end of the day I’m hoping that they can continue the way they’re playing and can make something out of this season. I think the Raptors have a great opportunity to do something this year.