What to make of the Bismack Biyombo experiment?

Bismack Biyombo was one of the most fascinating draft cases of the past decade. After coming out of veritably nowhere to lead the Spanish ACB League — what is considered to be the best league in the world outside of the NBA — in blocks per game in 2011, the African center recorded the first triple-double in Nike Hoop Summit history with 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 blocks. This performance — in conjunction with his NBA-ready frame and 7’6 wingspan — caused him to rocket up draft boards, and eventually become the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.

Biyombo’s first two seasons in the NBA were not great. He played way too many minutes on inferior Bobcat teams, looking overmatched in the process. His offensive game simply had not come along far enough along yet. In his first season, the Bobcats offensive rating with Biyombo on the floor was 89.7, a far cry from their 94.5 rating with him off of the floor. That actually improved in his second season, but the team has never had a league-average true-shooting percentage with Biyombo on the floor.

The problem is that he’s a spacing disaster that doesn’t quite have the hands to be counted on to catch the ball and not turn it over. Also, the team’s pace of play has consistently dropped with Biyombo on the court in each of his three seasons, undoubtedly because the offense is essentially playing four-on-five. It takes longer to initiate offense whenever you’re playing underhanded, and that’s a major problem for a team that already struggled to initiate offense anyway.

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That’s not an exaggeration, by the way, that the offense is playing four-on-five. Let’s take a look at’s SportVU data on touches to see how often Biyombo is used on offense. Calculated by dividing Biyombo’s touches per game with his minutes per game, Biyombo averaged .8 touches per minute, as seen above. Among players that played at least 70 games and averaged 10 minutes per, that was the worst in the NBA. The second worst mark belongs to Anthony Morrrow, previously of the New Orleans Pelicans at .99. That means that Biyombo’s touches per minute were 19 percent lower than ANY other player in the NBA.

And this doesn’t even take into account how often Biyombo touches the ball in the front court, which is considerably lower given his 27.6 defensive rebounding rate. Biyombo was on the floor an average of 27.5 offensive possessions per game for the Bobcats last year (his percentage of minutes played per game multiplied by the Bobcats possessions per game). During that time, he averaged only 4.9 front court touches per game. That means he was only touching the ball on 17 percent of Charlotte’s possessions, or one out of every six. Most likely, this is because his turnover rate is a catastrophic 18 percent for a player that has a sub-10 usage rate. His hands need to improve, and he needs to become more assertive in his decision making.

All of that goes to show that Biyombo is still an incredibly limited offensive player. However, it would be unfair to say that he’s not improving at the same time. One place where he HAS been more assertive is shooting the ball. By stepping into a more limited role, Biyombo played efficiently. His .59 points-per-touch was good enough for sixth in the NBA this season, meaning that when he did get the ball — and not turn it over — he was successfully being productive. Those points per touch are best displayed on the offensive glass, where his 11 percent offensive rebounding rate is responsible for 25 percent of his field goal attempts and 26 percent of his free throw attempts. All of this led to a 61 percent true shooting mark after two seasons at 48 and 47 percent respectively.

Becoming a basketball minimalist on offense is nice, and he’ll need to continue developing there. The reason why his offense matters is that he’s actually turned into a pretty nice rim protector defensively. Beyond simply blocking shots — which, had he qualified for the official NBA leaderboard, would have placed him third in the entire NBA — opponents only shot 51.8 percent within five feet of the rim when Biyombo was the primary defender, which was second in the league behind Roy Hibbert. He veritably shut down the paint when he was on the floor, as teams only shot 52.4 percent in the restricted area when he was on the floor versus 60 percent when he was on the bench. This ability to affect shots extended throughout the paint, as the Bobcats were also 3 percent better defensively on non-restricted area paint shots with Biyombo on the floor. His length causes all sorts of problems for opposing offenses, which is extremely important in Steve Clifford’s defensive scheme.

Between his rim protection and rebounding ability, it’s clear that Biyombo has use. The question now is just how to maximize that minimalism on offense to make him more viable as a player. Limiting turnovers is critical to that process, and it should keep happening as he continues to think the game better. Biyombo, after all, is still only 21 (we think), and his basketball sense is going to continue to improve. Upgrading his offense to the point that he can effectively be on the floor for over 20 minutes per game is the key to unlocking his potential.

So it’s fair to say that the great Bismack Biyombo experiment hasn’t been a failure at all yet. Quite the contrary, there still seems to be quite a bit of upside with this Congolese center. With the Bobcats scaling back his minutes and giving him a chance to grow, we finally saw the player that everyone expected from the start. This isn’t to say it’s a guarantee that he’ll ever achieve the lofty expectations of the seventh overall pick; but as the Charlotte franchise moves into the Hornets’ era, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him become an important part of it off the bench now or as a defensively-minded starter in the future.