Out of Africa

Biyombo’s meteoric rise puts him on Pistons radar

Bismack Biyombo
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues a 15-part series leading to the June 23 draft with a look at one of the possibilities for their pick at No. 8 in the first round, Congolese power forward Bismack Biyombo. Next: Jan Vesely.

Almost no one in NBA front offices had heard of Bismack Biyombo until last fall, many not until January. Now he’s widely expected to be a lottery choice in the 2011 draft. Such meteoric rises weren’t unthinkable a generation ago, when Jack McCloskey found a future Hall of Famer at Southeastern Oklahoma and spent a second-round pick on Dennis Rodman in 1986.

But today, in the digital communications age where the NBA’s tentacles reach to every continent, such stories raise eyebrows as much as interest.

If Biyombo is what he is purported to be – an 18-year-old with relatively little basketball experience – then a freakishly long-armed player with freakish athleticism could well become to the next generation what Rodman was to the last.

Even a reasonable facsimile would put him in the discussion for the Pistons as they mull their options with the No. 8 pick in a draft where Biyombo isn’t the only player with questions surrounding him.

The first question NBA teams will have to satisfy with Biyombo is his age. His listed birthdate is August 28, 1992 – making him the youngest likely lottery draftee. But there doesn’t appear to be birth-certification authentication, and questions only seem to have been exacerbated by news from Biyombo’s own camp that, upon his arrival in Spain two years ago, his representative took him to a bone specialist to confirm his age. At a time Biyombo claimed to be 16, the bone specialist – according to Biyombo’s camp, at least – said he could be no older than 18.

Why is it significant if Biyombo is 18 today and not, say, 21 or 24? To some, it isn’t a huge issue. But if he’s 18 and has only played basketball for four years, it wouldn’t be much of a leap to believe the Biyombo who played 14 games in Spain’s top division this year – widely considered the best pro league in the world outside of the NBA – has vast potential for improvement.

At 21? There probably isn’t as much room for improvement. The team that picks Biyombo will have to be comfortable with his growth projection if he turns out to be older than they expect.

More on Bismack Biyombo
Country: Congo

Size: 6-foot-9, 243 pounds

Age: 18 on draft night

The good: Biyombo’s defensive potential is off the charts. His enormous wing span – 7-foot-7, equal to Shaquille O’Neal’s – and standing reach of 9-foot-3, coupled with his explosive leaping, stamp him as a potential dominant shot-blocker and rebounder.

The bad: Is he really 18? Teams traveling to Italy this week for the Eurocamp will grill him to satisfy questions of his age. There’s also a question of FIBA clearing him after his Spanish league club claims he broke his contract. … Raw offensive prospect.

The skinny: Joe Dumars and his staff expect to sit down with Biyombo in Europe this week and also to see him work out in Italy. Their review of Biyombo is less complete than for any other prospect under consideration with the No. 8 pick. A tantalizing prospect to pair with Greg Monroe up front if he passes muster.

At some point in the draft, the age becomes less of a concern. Will that be where the Pistons pick – or above or below? Some of the doubts could be put to rest later this week, when Biyombo is expected to attend the Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy. He is expected to hold an individual workout there – though it isn’t known if it will be open to all NBA teams, all lottery teams or certain selected teams.

The Pistons will be heavily represented there by Joe Dumars, vice president Scott Perry and personnel director George David. That’s an unprecedented showing for them at this event, but they’ll hardly be alone. Most NBA teams are sending at least a few representatives to Treviso this year, and most of those attending are top-level executives.

Biyombo isn’t the only magnet drawing them there. Jan Vesely and Donatas Motiejunas, two other potential lottery picks, are also expected to participate. And Jonas Valanciunas could yet be added to the list – he’s obligated to national team practices – and if not there are indications he is amenable to granting interviews with lottery teams in his native Lithuania.

But no player is driving the NBA migration to Europe more than Biyombo, primarily because he is the one they feel least comfortable drafting at this point. Many of them caught their first glimpse of Biyombo in April at the Nike Hoop Summit, an annual competition between the cream of graduating United States high school seniors and their international peers.

Biyombo racked up the first triple-double in Hoops Summit history with 12 points, 11 boards and 10 blocks, doing it against a team that included elite frontcourt recruits Anthony Davis, projected by some as the No. 1 pick for the 2012 draft, and Michael Gilchrist, both of Kentucky, and James McAdoo of North Carolina.

Numbers equally compelling were supplied by Biyombo in the official measurements taken at the event. He checked in at 6-foot-9 in shoes and a chiseled 243 pounds – a physique that is helping to drive doubts that he could be 18.

He had a 7-foot-7 wing span and a 9-foot-3 standing reach. For comparison’s sake, the wing span is equal to Shaquille O’Neal’s and greater than JaVale McGee’s or Shawn Bradley’s; the standing reach is greater than Chris Kaman, Emeka Okafor, Andrew Bogut and Channing Frye’s.

And it’s standing reach and wing span, more than height, that is a more reliable tool to project a player’s positional fit. By that standard, Biyombo should not only be well-equipped to guard power forwards, but centers, as well.

From a character standpoint, it appears there are no issues or red flags on the horizon. Biyombo speaks five languages and impressed all comers at the Hoop Summit for his leadership potential and coachability. He plays with a fiery tenacity that has drawn comparisons to everyone from Ben Wallace to Joakim Noah to Kevin Garnett to countryman Serge Ibaka.

Contract issues could further cloud Biyombo’s status. To play in the Hoop Summit, he broke his contract with Fuenlabrada. The matter is now in the hands of FIBA, basketball’s international governing body. If he isn’t cleared by FIBA in time for the draft, it could cost Biyombo several spots.

For now, the team that picks Biyombo can expect the bulk of his contributions to come at the defensive end and on the offensive glass. He has an unrefined offensive package, though his shot mechanics suggest he has a chance to become at least a serviceable post player once he soaks up a little more experience and coaching.

Biyombo’s performance in Spain appears to have caught even his own club by surprise. He was only elevated to the top division by Fuenlabrada in January after it traded away its starter, hoping Biyombo could help bridge the gap until a permanent replacement was found. In 17 minutes a game over his 14 games, Biyombo averaged 6.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. As modest as the points and rebounds might appear, given his experience, court time and level of competition, they were viewed as highly encouraging – and earned him the invitation to the Hoop Summit.

His performance in that game was the event that caused Biyombo to leap from a potential first-round pick to a likely lottery choice – perhaps even a top-five pick. If it hadn’t been for his Hoop Summit game, it’s possible – perhaps even likely – that Biyombo would have ultimately decided to play another year in Europe before entering the NBA draft.

And he still has until June 13 to pull out – the last day of the Hoop Summit. By then, he’ll very likely have solicited enough feedback from NBA teams to bring his draft status more clearly into focus. And by then, the Pistons will have critical information on Biyombo that will help them decide where he fits in their pecking order – or perhaps whether he will be out of reach at No. 8.