By John Denton
Oct. 12, 2017
ORLANDO – Undoubtedly, the Orlando Magic’s smaller, sleeker, push-the-pace style of attack plays to the greatest strengths of power forward Aaron Gordon, point guard Elfrid Payton and athletic wings Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Jonathon Simmons and Jonathan Isaac.
Why, even center Nikola Vucevic has gotten into the act now by growing his game to the point that he’s become a threat as a 3-point shooter.
Where in all of that, basketball fans in Orlando have to wonder, does that leave shot-swatting center Bismack Biyombo? After all, Biyombo was the team’s biggest free-agent addition a year earlier and he’s tied with Fournier as the Magic’s highest-paid player for the upcoming season.
It’s not that the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Biyombo can’t get out and run with Orlando’s gazelle-like young wings, but the Magic’s intentions of playing just one big man at a time could do quite the number on Biyombo’s role – especially since most of those big-man minutes will likely go to Vucevic.
Biyombo took those concerns to head coach Frank Vogel and new President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman – an old friend of his from his previous stint in Toronto – and the big man came away convinced that he will still play a major role on the Magic this season. And much to his credit, Biyombo said his concerns about his own role will take a back seat to helping the Magic avoid a sour season like last year and help get the franchise back into playoff contention.
“At the end of the day, it’s just about us all doing something to help the team win and it’s great to see guys coming along, guys getting together and playing for the right purpose,’’ said Biyombo, whose Magic (3-2) close out the preseason on Friday night at the Amway Center against the Cleveland Cavaliers (0-4). “I’m not concerned (about the role). Am I worried? No, I’m not. As long as the team is going to win that’s all that is going to matter. As we go along, the games will dictate how (Vogel) is going to use different players in different scenarios.’’
In the past, different scenarios would have meant the Magic leaning heavily on Vucevic on nights when they needed scoring and on Biyombo in games when defense is more of the priority. Vucevic is still one of Orlando’s top offensive threats and he could very well move back into the spot where he is the Magic’s leading scorer again this season.
Biyombo, on the other hand, worked hard all offseason to improve his effectiveness on the offensive end and thus far the results have been downright shocking. Were it not for the game being in the preseason, Biyombo’s 18 points in Tuesday’s win in San Antonio would have been a career high at the NBA level, besting the 16 he scored in March of 2016 while playing for the Raptors.
Not only did Biyombo make eight of 11 shots and both of his free throws, he had jumpers of 15, 14, 13 and 11 feet. To lend some perspective, he made just 10 shots of 10 or more feet (in 35 tries) all of last season. This preseason, he’s made 11 of his 18 shot attempts and eight of nine free throws – big improvements over the 52.8 percent he shot from the field and 53.4 percent from the free throw line last season.
“I feel comfortable now and the offense is going to come and I’ve gotten a ton better at it, but I’ve still got a long way to go,’’ said Biyombo, who averaged 6.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in his first season in Orlando. “As I continue to work, I’m going to get there. But the main thing is how can we find a way to still be a top team?’’
At the end of last season, Vogel’s message to Biyombo was that he had to become better at catching passes, finishing around the rim and hitting free throws when opponents throttled him rather than giving up dunks. He responded to that by working hard over the summer to improve his hands, his touch on hook shots and finding a more comfortable routine at the free throw line.
So far, so good, said Vogel, who jokingly referred to Biyombo as “a laser’’ following Tuesday’s game. That, for the record, is how Vogel usually refers to elite-level 3-point shooters.
“Each guy got a handful of things that they were asked to work on over the summer and (improving offensively) was one of them for Biz,’’ said Vogel, who sees no problem finding enough minutes at center for Vucevic and Biyombo together. “He’s done a lot of work on it, but we’re not going to put the cart before the horse because there’s a lot of season left to play. But he definitely looks more confident this year than last year.’’
It should be noted that the last time that Biyombo was this determined and worked this hard over the summer, he had the best season of his career for the Raptors in 2015-16. That year, he became one of the NBA’s stars of the postseason by leading the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals with his infectious energy and all-out play.
“I took (the Magic’s 29-53 record last season) as motivation to get better,’’ Biyombo said. “(Two) years before, when I was in Charlotte and we lost to Miami in the first round and a Game 7, I went into summertime thinking about it, really motivated, wanting to have a better year and I worked like (crazy) and I was motivated. It was just about me wanting to get better to help my teammates and obviously it ended up working out (with the Raptors). I couldn’t have planned it any better.’’
Biyombo’s all-around play this preseason – he also has 21 rebounds and six blocked shots in four games – already has some prognosticators believing that he is poised for a big season. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, Biyombo’s Wins Above Replacement ratio – a formula used to determine a player’s true value to a team – last season was -0.4 – a serious decline from the 2.0 he registered in 2015-16 with Toronto. This season, the computer models project Biyombo at a 1.2 – a number that would make him a force defensively and on the glass for the Magic and someone who can still hold his own offensively.
That’s a jump that Biyombo says he is determined to make this season – and one that should ensure that he still has a sizeable role on the team. Anything, Biyombo said, to help the Magic win big this season.
“Two weeks before we finished (last) season, I was already preparing my mindset to get ready (to work in the offseason),’’ he said. “Going into summertime, I wanted to do things differently and prepare myself better. I did, but only time will tell.
“I’m excited and I really want to go back to the playoffs,’’ he added, sounding more determined with every word. “I can’t go home (without the playoffs) again. It’s devastating, sitting home, watching TV and with nothing to do. You travel too much and you work out too much. I want to have fun and win. Somehow, I know, we’re going to win this year.’’
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