Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets center Bismack Biyombo close to return

Charlotte Hornets center Bismack Biyombo was playing some of his best basketball just before suffering a severely bruised knee in late January.
Charlotte Hornets center Bismack Biyombo was playing some of his best basketball just before suffering a severely bruised knee in late January. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

When Charlotte Hornets center Bismack Biyombo was injured Jan. 24, he happened to be playing the best he has in 3 1/2 NBA seasons.

He was protecting the rim, he was grabbing double-figure rebounds and he’d started to be a factor offensively.

So that deep bone bruise in his right knee really stole something, right? No, Biyombo now says; the injury was a gift in that it granted him perspective.

“I sit behind the bench and every time they call a play I picture it in my mind to stay involved,” Biyombo said. “I don’t think every ‘bad thing’ that happens to us is necessarily a bad thing. I see it as a challenge to get better at something. I got mentally better and I got stronger.”

And now he’s getting ready to return after a 10-game absence. Biyombo participated in practice Thursday at TD Garden. There’s a small chance he’ll be cleared to play Friday against the Boston Celtics, but more likely his return will come Sunday night against the Magic in Orlando, Fla.

Biyombo showed progress in the 13 games he started while Al Jefferson recovered from a groin strain. He had three points/rebounds double-doubles in that span, but Biyombo said those numbers weren’t the best measure of how he can impact a game.

“My job is to protect the paint as well as any player in the league. I tell myself that every day,” Biyombo said. “When I play, I want the other team to shoot 38 percent and score under 90 points. There was a stretch of 10 to 12 games when we were doing that. That, to me, is more important than getting a double-double.

Which, by the way, is precisely the message the coaches have has presented him. Coach Steve Clifford and Biyombo haven’t always been on the same page this season, but the situation has definitely improved.

Early in the season Biyombo, the No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft, was behind free-agent Jason Maxiell in the rotation. He sat out the first six games and Clifford made blunt comments to the Observer about Biyombo’s inconsistent effort.

“He and I have been talking about this for two years now – he’s got to be a more consistent effort, defense and rebounding player,” Clifford said in November, adding Biyombo’s team defense was somewhere between average and below average.

Clifford said the difference between Biyombo in November and Biyombo in January is he was more “energetic.”

Biyombo also took to heart something he hears constantly from the coaches: To focus on his strengths and don’t try things outside your skill set.

“Coach Clifford always says, ‘Play to your strengths and help your teammates play to their strengths,’ ” Biyombo said. “For me, that means set good screens. If that happens either (teammates) are going to be open or I am going to be open and a good percentage will go in.

“I’ve thought a lot more lately about how to create action, how to make the defense move. That happens when we keep moving.”

Biyombo was the youngest player in the 2011 draft, a 19-year-old who had played in the Spanish League. He was about as unsophisticated as a rookie can be, in terms of the nuances of the NBA game.

Early in his rookie season the then-coaching staff ran him through individual drills to teach him the basics of catching the ball in traffic.

“I didn’t understand team concepts when I was a rookie,” Biyombo said. “I’d played basketball, but the NBA is an entirely different basketball IQ.”

So when the then-Bobcats signed free-agent center Al Jefferson in the summer of 2013, it proved to be a blessing rather than a demotion. Biyombo had lots to learn, and Jefferson has been generous with advice.

“People thought that would be bad for me. No, it was for the best,” Biyombo said. “I thank God that happened because I got to sit back, learn the game and build every single day.

“I think this is the beginning of something that can be great for me. I’m excited, and I know I’ll be back out there helping my team win a ballgame.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell

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