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After two ‘hard’ years, Bismack Biyombo shows promise for Charlotte Bobcats

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Charlotte Bobcats forward/center Bismack Biyombo

On Thursday, in the Charlotte Bobcats’ most recent preseason game, Bismack Biyombo had the sort of first half that could net him serious playing time this fall.

Biyombo grabbed two rebounds on the Bobcats’ very first offensive possession. He blocked shots all over the place. He caught a no-look pass from Kemba Walker in full stride and dunked it home on a fast break – the sort of pass that Biyombo has fumbled away so many times in his brief career.

This was the Biyombo that the Bobcats have always wanted to see, the one who emerged for small stretches of his first two NBA seasons only to hibernate for weeks.

“His energy level (recently) has been different from that of what it was in summer league and, on film, from last year,” new Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said. “Hopefully he’s found the intensity level that would allow him to play well every night.”

Biyombo is starting at center since Al Jefferson is nursing an ankle injury, but he will be scrambling for minutes once Jefferson returns in a couple of weeks. In collegiate terms, the Bobcats “recruited over” Biyombo’s position this summer, signing Jefferson to a massive contract and drafting forward-center Cody Zeller.

That was understandable. Biyombo just hasn’t been very good in his first two NBA seasons.

“My first two years have been hard,” Biyombo said. “Not only for me, but for all the guys who have been here the past two years (when the Bobcats’ record of 28-120 has been the NBA’s worst). We had two different coaches the past two years and now we’re going into a third one. So there’s some adjusting every year ... At the same time, it’s a good challenge.”

It was a little more than two years ago when the Charlotte Bobcats made Biyombo, then 18, the No.7 pick of the 2011 draft.

He had taken a strange route to the NBA – from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Yemen to Spain to Charlotte – and was the youngest player in the NBA that season. He was also so raw that the Bobcats literally worked for weeks with him on the mechanics of catching a basketball. They understood they would have to wait for Biyombo to unlock his potential, but they thought the ceiling was very high. In one burst of optimism, Bobcats owner Michael Jordan compared Biyombo to a young Hakeem Olajuwon.

Now it’s 2013, and no one wants to wait anymore. Biyombo is 21 and as relentless a worker as ever, but his offensive deficiencies remain. It now appears likely they won’t ever be sanded away.

Biyombo’s specialties have always been defense and rebounding, but Clifford pointedly left him off a list of the team’s “good rebounder list” that he mentioned to the media earlier this season. Biyombo will have to repeatedly prove himself to Clifford, who early on did not seem nearly as enamored of the big man’s possibilities as the Bobcats’ front office that draft night.

Clifford said Biyombo in the past few games has “embraced the role of a rebounder and a help defender, and that puts him in a different place.”

“It doesn’t matter what age they are,” Clifford continued. “You have to play to your strengths. He has gifts. And in these last three and a quarter games, he has taken advantage of his gifts.”

While subbing for Jefferson, Biyombo had 21 rebounds in a single preseason game. “My goal is to play defense, rebound the ball, block shots, protect the paint and let the other stuff take care of itself,” Biyombo said. “Of course I will work on my offense ... But it’s obvious that those things are the things I bring to the table.”

As for that impressive catch and dunk on the fast break: “That’s about trust, man,” said Walker, who threw the pass. “I’ve been with Biz since Day One, and he has gotten better at catching the ball. He believes in me, so I believe in him.”

“The more we’ve worked on that, the easier those catches become,” Biyombo said. “I have come a long way.”

But his journey is nowhere close to over. And to play much this season once Jefferson returns, it’s apparent Biyombo will have to know exactly where he’s going every single night – under the rim, ready to rebound.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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