Charlotte Hornets

To get off bench, Hornets coach Clifford says Biyombo must improve effort, defense, rebounding

Based on recent chatter on sports-talk radio, Charlotte Hornets fans wonder why center Bismack Biyombo, the seventh pick in the 2011 NBA draft, hasn’t played this season.

Why is that?

“In the preseason he just didn’t play very well,” coach Steve Clifford said. “When he has the right energy level and thinking defense and rebounding, he has nights when he plays well. When he doesn’t do those things, the team doesn’t play as well when he’s out there.”

Clifford has chosen to play 6-foot-7 Jason Maxiell in what minutes Al Jefferson doesn’t play at center. The Hornets signed 10-year veteran Maxiell to a non-guaranteed contract, and he was no given to make the roster. But he’s played every game in a 2-3 start, averaging just over 13 minutes.

Maxiell’s statistics are modest: He’s averaging 3 points and 1.4 rebounds and doesn’t provide the shot-blocking Biyombo might. However, he consistently delivers things Clifford trusts right now.

“He plays in a way that allows the group to function well,” Clifford said. “He’s very bright at both ends of the floor. Offensively, though he isn’t a very good scorer, he’s a great screener, and that helps us play team basketball.

“He’s our best post defender individually and by far our most physical player.”

Fans clearly didn’t see this coming. Neither did Maxiell.

“I expected to be more of a locker-room guy and mentor to Biz and Cody (Zeller),” Maxiell said. “But the conditioning I did this summer paid off. They’ve asked me to be the first big man off the bench and I’ve tried to do my part.”

“Being a 10-year vet, you should be in a position to be trusted by your coach. It’s my job to be kind of a mentor – to do my job but also help them do their jobs as well.”

Biyombo makes about $4 million this season after the then-Bobcats exercised a team option a year ago. He’ll be a restricted free agent in July.

Last season Biyombo averaged 2.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.12 blocks in about 14 minutes a game. Clifford can live with Biyombo’s offensive limitations but only when he consistently brings impact defensively.

“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.

“His first two years (in the NBA) his team defense was somewhere between average and below average. Last year his rebounding and team defense became at times very, very good. If he can get those two areas back to that level, then he can be a very good player.”

Biyombo doesn’t sound antsy about his lack of playing time.

“That’s the coach’s decision. I’ve got to live with that and respect it,” Biyombo said. “But I’ve also got to get better. I think that’s what I always do and I’ll continue to do that.”

Does he agree with Clifford about his energy level?

“It could possibly be right,” Biyombo said. “I have to keep learning, I have to keep getting better and I have to stay ready.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer