TREVISO, ITALY -- More than 100 NBA scouts and GMs pack into a tiny Italian gym at the adidas Eurocamp on a Saturday afternoon. All eyes are on Bismack Biyombo, the mysterious big man from the Congo.
Biyombo is working out. He is alone on the court. Trying to prove himself again. Trying to show the world he's for real.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
All is not going as planned.
Biyombo is here to show the NBA world he deserves to be a lottery pick in the 2011 draft, which is less than two weeks away. Right now his audition seems more appropriate for a bricklayer. The more he misses, the more the NBA execs I'm sitting next to scribble in their books.
After riding a six-month rise to fame during which he could seemingly do no wrong, Biyombo is stumbling at the worst possible time.
As the workout comes to a painful conclusion, one NBA GM leans over to me and says, "Bismack Biyombo just played a game of one-on-none ... and he lost."
Putting the pieces together
Nine more days.
That's how long GMs like Kevin O'Connor, Chris Grant, Bryan Colangelo, Ernie Grunfeld, Geoff Petrie, Joe Dumars and Michael Jordan have to decide on the biggest enigma of this year's draft.
Is Biyombo -- a 6-foot-9 big man with crazy-long arms, an NBA body and bouncy springs -- the next Dwight Howard? The next Mouhamed Saer Sene? Or is he someone in between like Ben Wallace?
Since Biyombo burst onto the scene in January, those execs, along with virtually every other team, have been trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle. A handful of teams took a trip to Spain to watch him play with Fuenlabrada of the Spanish ACB league before he left the team in April. More made the trip to Portland to watch him play at the Nike Hoop Summit, where he recorded a triple-double. More recently, a number of NBA teams traveled to Vitoria, Spain, to watch him work out with longtime coach Pepe Laso and do interviews.
NBA GMs don't like to be caught off guard. Six months ago, none of them knew who he was. Now, he presents one of the highest risk-reward conundrums of the draft.
Who is he? Where did he come from? Is Biyombo destined to be another player in a long line of international busts? Or is he going to follow in the footsteps of another Congolese forward, Serge Ibaka, and become a star?
Those are the questions facing a number of NBA GMs in the lottery.
'Basketball was my life'
Late Saturday evening, Biyombo is in my hotel room telling me his unbelievable life story. His huge frame fills a small desk chair next to my bed. His voice is deep. When he tells his story, he has perspective and depth. He's had experiences at 18 that most of us don't have by 40. He's been a pro since 14. He left home at 16 to play in several Middle Eastern countries. He flew to Spain less than a year later to embark on a pro career. He speaks six languages: English, Spanish, French, Arabic and two dialects of Congolese.
When he talks, he sounds like a wise, old traveler ... not the 18-year-old he claims to be.
"I was born on August 28, 1992," he tells me several times. He repeats the date several times in the interview.
But ask NBA scouts -- any NBA scout -- and they'll tell you he's closer to 22 than 18. They have no proof, mind you. He just looks, sounds, acts and plays older, they claim.
I understand the feeling. Everything about Biyombo sounds and feels older. But his life experiences might explain that. He's not a coddled AAU star. He grew up in a culture that demands that you fend for yourself at a very young age.
Biyombo is the oldest of seven brothers and sisters from the city of Lubumbashi. He began playing basketball at age 9, professionally at age 14 in the Congo.
By the time he was 16, he decided to leave his home, despite his parents' objections, to play for a professional team in Qatar. But on his way, he stopped in Yemen for a week to get a visa, and once basketball officials got word that he was in town, they offered to let him practice with the team. Even at 16, Biyombo possessed the body of a man and the athleticism of an NBA player. Within a week, they offered him a contract.
"It's very different from the rest of the world," Biyombo said. "I knew nobody. I was still very young. Moving away from my family was a little difficult for me. On the other hand, it was something I really wanted to do. It was something I loved."
He did not attend school. Instead, he practiced for hours a day.
"Basketball was my life," he said. "All of my life."
His young life took another big turn when he traveled with his team to a tournament in Jordan. There he met former Jordanian and Angolan national team coach Mario Palma. Palma was impressed with Biyombo's ability and maturity, and praised his play after a game. Biyombo had a message for him, too: Help me get to a better league.
"He came to talk to me and asked for help," Palma told FIBA.com. "He said he wanted to play at a high level. Initially, I thought of sending him to Angola, where I have some contacts, so he could progress there. I thought of Angola because of the cultural proximity to his country of origin. Then I contacted someone in Spain [agent Igor Crespo] and everything started from there. It was the right choice."
"I told him, I don't want anything, just a good coach and a chance to play," Biyombo said. "That's all I ask."
Climbing the ranks
At age 16, in June 2009, Biyombo left Yemen for Vitoria without a new basketball contract. But he did have a workout, arranged by Crespo, with a number of the top teams in Spain.
"A lot of teams came to watch me practice," Biyombo says. "No one was interested, I tell you.
"After many weeks, finally a team [Fuenlabrada] came and offered me a shot at their junior team. They told me if I played well I could then play fourth division. Then in a couple of years, third division. Maybe someday I can play in the ACB. I said, no problem, I'll take it."
Biyombo began playing for Fuenlabrada's junior team, but he wasn't satisfied with the competition. He says he called the coach of the third-division team and asked him whether he could practice with that team as well.
"The coach came up to me right after practice and told me, 'You are not going to play anymore with the junior team. You are going to skip the fourth division. You are going to play with me,'" Biyombo said.
The next year, Biyombo ended up playing for both the third- and fourth-division teams. On Saturday, he'd play third-division games and, then on Sunday, fourth-division games. To keep up with both teams, he'd sometimes have to practice four times a day.
At the end of the season, Crespo asked Biyombo whether he wanted to go home to his family for the summer. Biyombo told him that he wanted to stay and get better. He no longer felt challenged in the third division. His goal was to move up to the first division of the ACB the next season.
At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Biyombo was still on the third-division team in Spain. One month into the season, he moved up to the second division. He began practicing with the first dvision as well, and his defense against Esteban Batista, one of the best centers in Europe, wowed the coaching staff. When Fuenlabrada received a huge offer for Batista from Caja Laboral, the team decided to pull the trigger.
"After Batista left, the coach says to me, 'You know what, we don't care if Batista leaves. We have you, and you can help us,'" Biyombo said.
Batista left on a Monday. On Sunday, Jan. 9, Biyombo got his first minutes in the ACB. He played 13 minutes against DKV Joventut, finishing with five points, seven rebounds and a block. After two more games, the coach told him that he could stay with the team for the rest of the season.
Welcome to the limelight
Within two months, a number of NBA international scouts were following Biyombo's rise in the ACB. Biyombo played 14 games for Fuenlabrada in 2010-11, averaging 6.4 points on 56 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 17 minutes a game.
On March 8, I wrote ESPN.com's first draft entry on him: "International scouts have been quietly buzzing for the past month about Biyombo. He's one of the few ultra athletic players in Europe right now. He has the physical profile down and scouts claim that he's more polished than most players his age. The fact that he's getting some real playing time in the best league in Europe, the ACB, helps him as well. Some are comparing him to Serge Ibaka."
At the time, Biyombo seemed like a big-time future prospect for the 2012 or 2013 draft. A month later, he became the "it" prospect in the 2011 draft at the Nike Hoop Summit.
Rich Sheubrooks, who works for both Nike and the Memphis Grizzlies, had spotted Biyombo in Spain and offered him a shot on the Hoop Summit team. His Spanish team balked at letting Biyombo leave during the season, but Biyombo had a clause in his contract that allowed him to go.
The move would, once again, change his life. Most NBA teams had yet to scout Biyombo, so GMs and scouts descended in force on Portland to watch him play. He was the main attraction, and they weren't disappointed.
Biyombo wowed all week with his toughness, athleticism, shot-blocking, leadership and motor. He was a defensive powerhouse with a Ben Wallace-esque body and a crazy 7-foot-7 wingspan.
In the game, Biyombo dominated on the defensive end, finishing with 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks in 28 minutes against Team USA. It was the first triple-double in the history of the Hoop Summit.
"When I walked away, I felt proud of myself," Biyombo said. "I put everything on the floor. I played very hard. I did good things on the floor.
Biyombo said Sheubrooks was one of the first to greet him after the game. "He told me, 'What you just did over there will change your life. You'll see what will happen in the next week,'" Biyombo recalled.
Within a week, he had risen into the lottery on our Big Board. In a draft without a lot of players with big upside, he was intriguing. A week later, Scouts Inc.'s David Thorpe argued that he could be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
In six months, Biyombo had gone from an obscure, third-division big man in Spain to a possible lottery pick in the NBA draft. "Meteoric rise" just doesn't do it justice.
Biyombo ended his contract with Fuenlabrada and began working out in Vitoria in preparation for the draft. A number of teams have made the trip. Most walk away impressed -- not so much with the workouts, but with the personal interview.
"He's one of the most impressive young men I've met this year," one GM said. "He won't blow you away in a workout because he's the type of player who just plays basketball. He needs to be in a game. But in his interview? Wow. He had a high level of maturity and he's driven to succeed. He's not ready, but I have no doubt he'll put in the work he needs to be a winner."
Who is Bismack Biyombo?
He might not be a workout guy, but he knows how to work the room.
Six hours after his shaky workout, Biyombo is standing in the lobby of the Maggior Consiglio hotel, looking like anything but a loser. He is the proverbial most interesting man in the room, with NBA scouts and GMs flocking to him.
Crespo is handing out a packet of information on Biyombo, arranging more interviews and laughing off one bad day of shooting. He's also hoping and praying that all the momentum and goodwill haven't vanished.
Biyombo had been working hard to improve his shooting touch, and a number of NBA scouts who previously attended workouts in Vitoria said it was getting better. Crespo began to feel strongly that Biyombo had an opportunity in Italy to show that he was more than just a shot-blocker and defender. More than just the next Ben Wallace.
Wallace isn't the sort of sexy comparison that agents love to make. Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett sells high lottery picks. Not Big Ben.
But it's the classic mistake often made at this time of the year. With prospects trying to prove to scouts that they're better than their scouting reports, their agents typically become obsessed with their weaknesses instead of their strengths. Biyombo might have been shooting the ball better, but by NBA standards (and they are the gold standard), he's a terrible shooter.
Had they run a workout in which they planted Biyombo in the paint and had various guards attack the basket, Biyombo indeed would have looked like the next Wallace. Even in limited playing time, his 2.3 blocks per game led the ACB this past season.
Regardless, most scouts seem unfazed by the workout. Some claim he looked better in Spain. Others blame nerves and the structure of the workout. A few are concerned about his hands, his feel. Everyone is still intrigued.
"He didn't play very well," one veteran NBA scout said. "But I didn't expect him to in that environment and with that workout. It really showed off his weaknesses, but they are weaknesses we already knew he had. I do worry about his hands. I worry about turnovers. I'm not sure how great a feel he has for the game on the offensive end. But you can't hide his strengths, either. We know what he could be, and it's very, very attractive. If he is who he's portraying himself to be, he's got a chance to be in the NBA for a long time."
Said one GM: "He can play in the NBA right now. If you understand what he is and what he isn't, and you're OK with that, then I think he's a very safe pick. Defense helps win championships. Ben Wallace and Tyson Chandler don't score, but they help their teams in so many ways. If you value defense, length and drive, I think it's hard not to like him. Maybe love him."
"Maybe" is a scary word so close to the draft. But it also is a hopeful word this time of the year.
There are many "maybe" prospects in this draft. Maybe he flames out. Maybe he succeeds.
There are nine more days to place your bets. Given all he's overcome in life, it might be unwise to bet against Biyombo playing five-on-five.