Biyombo ready to seize opportunity in first season with the Raptors

Getting to know Raptors centre Bismack Biyombo, who's first ever dunk was when he was 13 and in dress shoes.

Bismack Biyombo hasn’t forgotten about June 23, 2011, nor will he likely ever. That was the day the then 18-year-old became an NBA player, the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft.

He also hasn’t forgotten that the Toronto Raptors, drafting fifth, had expressed serious interest in selecting the Congolese centre that year. Instead, Toronto chose Jonas Valanciunas. Biyombo was drafted by the Sacramento Kings and promptly traded to the Charlotte Bobcats.

Four years later, when Charlotte let the six-foot-nine, 245-pound, 23 year-old walk at the end of last season, Biyombo hoped the Raptors would make his list of potential suitors. Though it had little to do with rewriting history.

Asked why, extactly, he signed with the Toronto this summer as a free agent, Biyombo doesn’t hesitate for a moment. Neither does the giant smile that creeps across his face.

“That man right there,” he says, pointing to GM and President Masai Ujiri, Blackberry in hand and wearing a well-tailored navy suit, sitting on the practice gym floor with his back leaning against a wall near the sideline hash marks. “He’s why I’m here.”

Ujiri and Biyombo have a long-standing relationship born out of their respective charity works in Africa. So when Biyombo got a call from the Raptors’ chief decision-maker just three minutes after the start of free agency on July 1st, a part of him assumed Masai, notorious for working long hours into the night, wanted to discuss details of their various basketball camps back home. That conversation would have to wait; Ujiri wanted Biyombo on his roster.

Biyombo jumped at the opportunity. Now, four months later, he’s learning that the organization and their fans are as advertised.

“Playing here in the past,” he says, “I know the fans are great here, and it’s been like that since I’ve been in the league.”

In his first regular season appearance in a Raptors uniform, the crowd lived up to his admittedly lofty expectations.

“That was one thing I noticed last night—we had our ups and downs but you could feel the excitement in starting a new season with a new looking team coming from [the fans]. The fans here were fantastic [Wednesday] night. We couldn’t have come back without them.”

In their season opener, Raptors came back from a 16-point deficit and truly abhorrent first half against the Indiana Pacers to win 106-99.

Biyombo, for his part, came as advertised as well. In 15 minutes off the bench, the backup centre used his strength (DeMarre Carroll calls him the strongest on the roster) and timing to help protect the rim, particularly down the stretch.

If his infectious personality isn’t enough (seriously, did you see that Know Your Raptors video at the top of this page???) then his lunch pail approach to the game is sure to brand Biyombo a fan favourite among the Raptor faithful. This city gravitates to no-nonesense workers—the embrace of fellow newcomer Carroll just the latest in a long line of examples—and it seems safe to say we’ll be adding Biyombo’s name to that list before long.

Not unlike teammate Bruno Caboclo, Biyombo parlayed an improbable, eye-opening experience at an exhibition showcase before the draft to a first-round pick. At the Nike Hoop Summit in 2011, he posted the event’s first-ever triple double: 12 points, 11 rebounds, and ten blocks. And while he hasn’t developed into the gamechanger many scouts expected him to become, he’s found his niche in the league. In the NBA, if you can be great at one thing chances are you’ll keep your spot.

For Biyombo, that thing is defence, and it’s precisely why Ujiri brought him to town, after watching his team allow the sixth-most field goals within five feet of the basket in 2014-15.

“We have talked about me being a defensive stopper for the team,” says Biyombo, who expects to continue to tag-team offense-for-defense with Valanciunas as the season progresses. “That’s how I’m going to get in the mix.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s content with his game. As practice wrapped on Wednesday, Biyombo stayed behind, working on a six-eight-foot jumper that teams will continue to leave him open to shoot until he proves he can knock them down. Afterwards, he hit the weight room with Raptors coach Jamal Magloire, whom he works closely with every day (and fondly recalls matching up against him during his rookie season) and did a routine of exercises that involved palming, bouncing, and catching a medicine ball. He says the two were just “messing around” but surely this club knows that Biyombo must work on his hands to be a factor on the offensive end of the floor.

“It took me a few years to adjust to the NBA,” Biyombo says. “Four years in I feel like I’m in a position now where I better understand [how to get better]. I’m still young, I look forward to my future in the game.”

Still, at some point you are who you are. At 23, Biyombo isn’t at that point yet, but for now he’s happy to play his part and enjoy the ride.

“JV, Kyle, and DeMar were great [against Indiana] and that’s what this team needs,” he says. “The rest of us began to fall in place and got better as the game went on. We’re all going to face ups and downs, it’s part of the process. At the end of the day we’re making sure we’re doing everything we can do go forward.

All I care about is how I fit in, how I can contribute to this team to help us win. That’s what it’s about right there.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.