Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
An ankle injury to a red-hot Jonas Valanciunas in the second round of the N.B.A. playoffs came at a terrible time for the Toronto Raptors, but for Bismack Biyombo, the team’s backup center, it could not have worked out better.
Biyombo, a 6-foot-9 defensive ace, has flourished in the starting role. And with the ability to opt out of his contract and become a free agent this summer, he also appears to have set himself up for a huge payday.
While solid all season for the Raptors, and a contributor in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Biyombo caught fire in Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. As Toronto fought back, on Monday tying the series at two games apiece, Biyombo amassed an incredible 40 rebounds while also contributing 12 points, 7 blocks and 2 assists and committing just two turnovers. He has put on a show, with finger wags after his blocks worthy of Dikembe Mutombo, and plenty of tough play inside against a heavily favored team.
Other than some fears that his physical style could end up injuring an opponent, the only mild controversy that had surrounded Biyombo entering Wednesday night’s game involved whether or not he had been given permission by Mutombo to replicate his signature gesture.
Biyombo, who like Mutombo is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has said he was given permission; Mutombo good-naturedly denied that but also made it clear that Biyombo needed no permission.
“He’s a young man, so I let him enjoy the fame,” Mutombo said. “He’s making me famous. I will see him in the Congo this summer, so him and I will talk back home with nobody around us.”
Predicting Biyombo’s ascension a year ago would have been nearly impossible. The seventh pick of the 2011 draft, Biyombo has always been entertaining, but he never averaged more than 5.2 points or 4.9 rebounds a game in four seasons for Charlotte. Even as he steadily improved in various advanced basketball statistics, the world failed to notice. He signed a free-agent deal with Toronto worth around $3 million for this season with a player option for a second year at roughly the same amount.
That he would eventually opt out was probably a foregone conclusion, even before his breakout in the playoffs, as he thrived as the defensive half of a center rotation with Valanciunas, playing in all 82 games while averaging 5.5 points, 8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just 22 minutes per game.
Still only 23, and able to play much larger than his 6-foot-9 frame, he was sure to command far more than a $3 million guarantee based on his regular-season performance alone. Now he is likely to be lobbying teams for a starting role and a salary to match.
He has thus far proved himself capable of a larger role, logging 39 or more minutes in three of the team’s last five games heading into Wednesday, after playing that much only two times during the regular season and seven times in his four seasons with Charlotte.
Biyombo has perhaps already priced himself out of Toronto, which is committed long term to Valanciunas, whose four-year, $64 million contract extension starts next year. The Raptors may not have the money or the playing time to keep Biyombo.
Valanciunas returned Wednesday night for Game 5, but as he gets back into the groove, Biyombo will still probably handle the majority of the work. Judging by Games 3 and 4, that should cause some discomfort for Cleveland.
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