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Bismack Biyombo and the artistry of ferocious shot-blocking

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
January 27, 2023

Against the Indiana Pacers last Saturday, Bismack Biyombo became just the 103rd player in NBA history to record 1,000 blocks for his career. It was a milestone that came and went with little fanfare, but his Phoenix Suns teammates were well aware of its significance.

“I kept yelling ‘2,000’ from the bench,” Jock Landale said. “‘Cause he just got that 1,000 career blocks, and I was like, ‘He’s going for 2,000 now!’”

Cam Johnson, meanwhile, couldn’t help but get a dig in.

“Well, you gotta subtract one of them, because here a couple of years ago, I went up for a layup and he blocked it, but it was goaltending and they didn’t call it,” Johnson joked. “So in my mind I’m gonna subtract one, but he’s still over 1,000 nonetheless.”

Wherever Bizzy goes, the humor seems to follow. From his heartwarming stories about his father to his life experiences growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to building a hospital back in his homeland, Biyombo has been a feel-good story ever since he came to the Valley. There’s a warmness to every room he enters…until he steps on the court.

“We know what Biz do,” Bridges said. “He just waits for his time to come in and he’s a true pro and just knows, when he comes in, he’s gonna play the way he plays.”

So how does he play, exactly? This season especially, it’s as one of the most tenacious, ferocious and underrated shot-blockers in the NBA.

Bismack Biyombo, elite shot-blocker

Aside from being 16 blocks shy of passing Darryl Dawkins to crack the NBA’s top-100 shot-blockers of all time, Biyombo is having one of his best years ever protecting the rim, and he’s doing it in his age-30 season.

Despite only logging the 269th-most minutes among all players this season, Biyombo is 15th in total blocks. He’s 13th in blocks per game (1.4) as well, despite only ranking 323rd in minutes per game (14.4).

To put that into perspective, Bizzy is second in the entire league in blocks per 36 minutes (3.5), trailing only a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Jaren Jackson Jr. (4.3). According to Cleaning The Glass, Biyombo entered Thursday’s game with a 5.1 block percentage, second to only Jackson’s absurd 5.7 percent mark.

The man just knows how to block shots.

“Man, he puts his heart, his soul in every play — defensively and offensively, but defensively, that’s his specialty,” Ayton said. “Really, it’s being fearless and just sending your stuff to the 10th row. Might be nosebleeds tonight, but that man is fearless when it comes to just being that anchor, and he takes pride in it.”

The fact that he’s been able to rack up swats at a near league-leading rate despite seeing inconsistent playing time is nothing short of remarkable. He’s backed up Ayton off the bench, started for DA when he’s been injured, and not seen the floor in some games where coach Monty Williams opts for Landale or Dario Saric. But no matter what the situation, he contributes when his number’s called.

“The intensity that he plays with, it gives everybody energy,” Williams said. “He’s going after shots, he’s going after loose balls. He’s 6’8″, and he’s down there playing against guys that are 6’11”, 7-feet tall, and you can’t tell. He’s just a diligent worker, he’s physical. The guys love playing with him.”

There’s a direct correlation between Biyombo’s commitment to contesting shots and recording blocks. According to The BBall Index, prior to Thursday’s game, he ranked in the:

  • 97th in percentile in percentage of rim shots contested
  • 98th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions
  • 99th percentile in blocks per 75 possessions
  • 97th percentile in block rate on contests
  • 99th percentile in rim defensive field goal percentage vs. expected
  • 100th percentile in adjusted rim points saved per 75 possessions

In this case, the eye test matches the advanced stats. Emphatically.

Too many ill-fated travelers are wandering into the paint, thinking they have a layup or at least a floater, before Bizzy smacks the ball with impeccable anticipation, athleticism and reach. The elevation he gets, often from a simple 1-2 step to prepare himself for liftoff, is incredible to witness. Just ask the Suns bench, reacting at the end of this clip to consecutive blocks against the Los Angeles Lakers:

From Bizzy’s perspective, getting the block is nice, but it’s just as much about the fear those plays inspire in opponents. It’s the game within the game.

“Sometimes, blocking shots is not just about ‘I could get a piece of it,'” he explained. “Can I change the shot? I think I’ve changed more shots than I have blocked, and to me, that always has been the mentality. I don’t have to block the shot, but can I make the guy think twice?”

“That’s where sometimes you see guys start shot-faking like three or four times because you got him thinking. Or he drives to the basket, and I just jump to go and see if I can get it, but because I jumped so high, even if he makes it, he knows that he’s gonna have to work for it. So next time he comes to the lane, he still have that in the back of his mind.”

Funneling drivers into Biyom-blocks

Having a guy whose sole defensive focus is “make opponents afraid” as a rim protector makes it a lot easier for the Suns to get away with some of their defensive mistakes on the perimeter. In fact, they’ve even acknowledged the advantages to herding ball-handlers into Biyombo and letting him take care of the rest.

The drivers are sheep, and Biyombo is the Biz Bad Wolf.

“Man, when you have somebody like him in the game, and you can just be a little bit more aggressive, funnel people to the paint and know that he’s going to block the shot or really make it tough, that’s such a luxury to have,” Cam Johnson said. “And not every team has that, so talk about a guy that we all love playing with.”

No defense intentionally allows opponents to get to the rim, but Biyombo is their security blanket on the back line, ready to snuff out danger around the basket.

“It’s his timing, his kind of tenacity to go after every single opportunity that presents itself to block a shot, to the point where he’s not given up drop-offs a whole lot,” Landale described. “He has this special ability to kind of play between two [areas] and then just time it so perfectly.”

As a 12-year NBA veteran, Biyombo has learned the value of doing his homework…and not just on his opponents.

“I think watching a lot of film, just being able to learn and study other players and knowing, like, on my team, for example, who is gonna need more of my help than others?” he said. “And then, when I can help them and what side of the floor are they more vulnerable and how I can prepare for it?”

That innate attention to detail manifests itself on the court, and it forges bonds with his teammates.

“I think trust in my guys — that I can cover for them, they can cover for me — also gives them a sense of confidence,” he said.

The ultimate way Bismack Biyombo strengthens that chemistry is with some mean-spirited weak-side blocks in the half-court. When the Suns lose a cutter, get caught on a screen for the ball-handler or generally just get burned on a play, Bizzy has been there, rotating over to put his 7-foot-6 wingspan to good use:

“Obviously, he’s athletic, and his wingspan’s what it is, but you gotta be hungry to go after every ball, and I think that he has that,” Landale said. “It provides such a depth for us and confidence defensively every single night that the guards can press up and get into their own, knowing that he’s back there willing to go across and block shots.”

Williams believes part of Bizzy’s shot-blocking prowess stems from a “willingness to be dunked on” that every great rim protector must embrace. Playing without fear is how he forces opponents to account for him in the paint.

“There’s those blocks where you’re just like, ‘I know I’m gonna get it,’ and then once you get one or two, now you have everybody on the floor thinking about it,” Biyombo said. “So now they’re passing out the ball more than they’re scoring in the paint.”

That philosophy applies to the chase-down block, an art Bizzy has mastered. What most people see is the 6-foot-8 Biyombo doing his best impression of a Basketball Black Panther: stalking his prey as he lurks in transition, a burst of speed as he hurtles toward the basket, and a final pounce that confirms the kill. But Biz pointed out the trust factor with his teammates coming into play there too.

“We’ve kind of started developing a relationship with our guards, where if there’s a fast break and they know I’m behind, they’re not going to try to foul,” he explained. “I think it has happened like three or four times in the past games, where guys are just running and they put their hands back, and I just go and clean it up. So I think that’s also the trust that we’re building as we go.”

Notice how many times the Suns defender closest to the ball allows the ball-handler to break free at the last minute, knowing their temporary window to the basket is about to be slammed shut by Biz:

It’s not like Biyombo is obsessed with racking up stats or adding to his highlight reel; statistically speaking, these vicious blocks help ignite Phoenix’s offense too.

Combing through all 56 blocks and 54 defensive possessions where he recorded a block, the Suns scored 25 times on the immediate fast break or ensuing possession (after shot clock violations, out-of-bounds, etc.). They’ve produced 46 points from those 54 possessions, which means the Suns are scoring 0.85 points per possession immediately following a Biyombo block.

That is an insane statistic and a clear indicator of how much Bizzy’s blocks ignite the break, the home crowd and the team itself.

“I love playing with Biz, man,” Josh Okogie said. “It’s just the amount of tenacity that he plays with defensively….It’s just hard to not follow suit when you see your big man who’s the last line of defense for everybody doing all he can.”

The improved defense of a studious veteran

Biyombo is not perfect; Williams has admitted sometimes they have to tell him not to go after blocks because it leaves the help defenders vulnerable to offensive rebounds if the ball gets past him.

However, two of his former coaches from his days with the Charlotte Bobcats — current Hornets coach Steve Clifford and Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas, who was an assistant in Charlotte back then — have seen his growth on that side of the floor.

“I would say that his rim protection back then was his greatest strength,” Clifford recalled. “His quickness, tough guy, very smart, picked things up quickly.”

“He’s very good at anticipating and being up in the pick-and-roll and using his hands,” Silas added. “He has a knack for knocking the ball away or using his hands to be active and tipping a ball as it’s being passed out of the pick-and-roll. And that is something that’s developed over the years with his thousands and thousands and thousands of pick-and-rolls that he’s seen.”

So why is this important to our opus on shot-blocking? Well, between Biyombo’s recognition of plays as they develop, familiarity with player tendencies and lateral quickness, opponents who thought they could just drive past him have fallen into the same trap:

Even getting a piece of some of these attempts would be impressive; on a few of them, he’s actively sizing up their shots without the driver even realizing it until he’s fully sending it back. It takes a rare combination of athleticism, leverage, strength and physicality to pull off rejections like these, especially when it requires sticking with quicker ball-handlers off the dribble.

“He does such a good job of protecting the rim and playing in certain one-on-one environments,” Williams said. “I think it’s his mentality that, ‘You can’t come to the rim or shoot it over me without me contesting it.’”

Chalking it up simply to physical attributes wouldn’t be giving Biyombo’s basketball mind the credit it deserves, however. In Charlotte, he was still trying to figure things out and navigate his way through the league as a top-10 draft pick.

“He was just young and didn’t really know what his role could be, especially as a lottery pick, right?” Silas said. “Like, you’re trying to be his star at that point, and now he’s perfectly content in his role and excelling in his role.”

That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but any coach of Biyombo’s has had nothing but positive things to say about the way he carries himself like a consummate pro. Williams said when he arrives at the practice facility for coaches meetings in the mornings, Bizzy is one of the first guys on the floor. He has a great relationship with assistant coach Mark Bryant, who always makes himself available for a late-night workout when Biyombo texts him asking for one.

In addition to his work ethic, Biyombo sharpens his mind with film study. Even when he doesn’t play, Biz gets sent videos of every game to study, helping him figure out which players to target, how to target them, and a plethora of other things on the defensive end.

“For me, it’s just that you have to be a constant student of the game,” he said. “Even if you can’t catch a rhythm on the floor, you have to keep learning the game and watching your teammates’ mistakes and how you can correct how everybody’s moving.”

It’s an approach that’s paid off when Phoenix has needed him to step up. The Suns are 8-1 in games he’s started this season, and their defensive rating improves from 112.8 with him off the court to 107.7 with him on the floor.

Perhaps most eye-opening of all, Biyombo is holding opponents to 15.2 percent worse shooting than they’d normally average on shots at the rim. That’s the third-best mark in the NBA among all players who have defended at least 50 shots at the rim, trailing only Draymond Green (-15.4 percent) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (-15.3 percent) — two former Defensive Players of the Year.

For reference, Landale is at -9.5 percent. Ayton is at a dismal +0.4 percent.

Whether he’s deployed as a spot starter, backup center or third-string big, one thing is certain: In whatever minutes he gets, Bismack Biyombo is going to make an impact with the same mindset he’s always had.

“Basketball, it’s easy, man,” he said. “It’s not complicated. Coaches always say, ‘It’s not like anybody’s dying.’ It’s just basketball you gotta play, you know? And for me, I think throughout my career, it’s just understanding that, a team like ours, for example, we need everybody, 1-15. If you’re trying to win and you’re trying to do something special, you need everybody to be ready.”

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