It might come as a surprise, but Toronto Raptors President and General Manager was on the phone with free agent Bismack Biyombo just 3 minutes after the July Moratorium ended. Biyombo might not be the high profile player one would associate with the opening moments of free agency, but Ujiri and Biyombo go way back and the Raptors were looking for the things Biyombo could bring.
Bismack Biyombo audio 7-30-2015
“It’s quite a funny story,” Biyombo said. “I have known Masai for a while and when the free agency was coming my agent gave me a call right before 12 and let me know the teams that would be calling me and right after 12, it was like 12:03, I got a phone call from Masai, so I was asking myself, is he going to talk to me about the summer camps and stuff or is it just going to be about basketball? But, I was curious. He talked to me about my family, how my family was doing more than we talked about basketball and obviously Masai has been a guy that has done a lot for Africa and us as young African players, we always look up to him as our mentor. The influence was already there. I was just excited about working with him and looking for an opportunity to play for Coach Casey and obviously the team is a great team and I am excited to be part of it.”
In the typically quiet Toronto Raptors move, Ujiri’s interest in Biyombo didn’t leak until July 4th as the DeMarre Carroll commitment took center stage, but apparently the Raptors GM can do more than one thing at a time.
Biyombo was to be a restricted free agent, but Charlotte pulled their qualifying offer as they were working on bigger deals. However, Ujiri loves those long athletic big men that can run the floor, rebound and block shots. At just 22-years-old, Biyombo is still developing, but he has shown top-10 type skills on the glass and protecting the rim.
“He is a growing player too,” Ujiri said. “He is trying to find a niche in the NBA. He is still trying to figure it out in many ways. What his role and what his specialty can be in the NBA. The way we see it going with what he does well now I think his offensive rebounding is elite, blocking shots he’s elite, defensive rebounding is going to get better and as a defensive player, he is really a solid defender. We needed more physicality with our team, a screen-setter, a roller, somebody that will always challenge and put a body on guys and that’s what Biyombo does. I think he has one of the longest wingspans in the NBA, so he can create havoc especially rebounding and he gets in there. I think he is going to provide us good energy and a physical presence.”
Part of what has attracted Ujiri to this young big man from the Congo is his love of the game and work ethic. Biyombo is currently working with Ujiri in South Africa promoting basketball with other NBA players. It’s a big deal that takes a lot of time, but it hasn’t slowed down Biyombo’s training for next season. Ujiri credits the tough road Biyombo had to take to get this far for his dedication – or maybe, should that be the other way around?
“(Biyombo) went a different route,” Ujiri said. “He played a little bit (in Africa) and then he found a way to get to Europe which I think helped him quite a bit. Bismack had a harder route in developing, but he also had the good opportunity of playing in Europe which led him to playing in the Hoops Summit. The feel for the game with African players it comes with time, it develops. You only need to have the interest in playing the game. You want guys that love the game. Bismack absolutely loves the game. NBA players are exceptional. They are here for camp and they come in here and they are all working out at 7 o’clock, 6:30 in the morning and trying to sneak in a couple of workouts and he is one of those guys, a basketball junkie. So, I think he is going to get better and better.”
Biyombo goes one better than showing up for 6:30 am workouts. He starts 5 am.
“I am trying to work on things that will help me and my team win ball games which is my post move and my jump shot and free throws – they have to go higher,” Biyombo explained. “I had a chance to work with Hakeem Olajuwon the past few days here in South Africa, but even during my vacation I have my personal trainer that flies around with me to help me work on my game. So, I always find time to work on my game and sometimes I’ll work out at 5 o’clock in the morning before the day starts. I am excited about a new chapter and I am excited about an opportunity to actually play the game and I look forward to it. There is a lot of me that I still have to show and there is a lot business that I haven’t done yet, so I am looking forward to the challenge.”
Biyombo has a burning desire to prove he’s a better player than he has been given credit for so far in his career. That came through crystal clear in the Pro Bball Report exclusive interview at the end of the season.
Looking at the raw talent, the willingness to work hard and follow instruction, it isn’t hard to see a young player taking a major step forward during his fifth season in the NBA. Ujiri wasn’t just calling Biyombo at 12:03 because he’s a nice guy, Ujiri believes he has a young prospect who is going to look like the steal of free agency by the time that modest two-year deal is up.