U.S. team shines, but World squad intrigues at Nike Hoop Summit
PORTLAND, Ore. -- So how old is this Bismack Biyombo, the African triple-double prodigy who may be in the NBA next season?
"A lot of time people are saying I can't be so young, that I am much older,'' said Biyombo, the 6-foot-9, 243-pound forward/center from Congo who is listed as 18 years old. "It is not the first time I hear this, but I really don't care.''
Biyombo produced the first triple-double ever seen at the Nike Hoop Summit on Saturday, with 12 points (5-of-7 from the field), 11 rebounds and an astonishing 10 blocks in the World Select Team's 92-80 loss to the U.S. Junior National Select Team. The internationals arrived with more size, but the Americans performed as if they were the taller team thanks to their superior athleticism and teamwork. They've been playing together in international competitions, and their cohesion was intimidating from the opening minute. The World players were alarmed by the speed of the game and were forced to hurry their shots against the fast-closing American defenders.
Team USA ran out to a 20-12 lead while blocking six shots and holding the visitors to 3-of-21 shooting (14.3 percent) in the opening quarter. Duke-bound guard Austin Rivers (son of Celtics coach Doc) continued to make a name for himself by going 7-of-11 (3-of-4 from 3-point range) for a game-high 20 points, while the frontcourt play of future Wildcats Anthony Davis (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Michael Gilchrist (16 points and five blocks) suggested that Kentucky will be back in championship contention next season.
All 10 of the players on Team USA are headed to major college programs, and many of them will be drafted in the NBA lottery over the next couple of years. Of more immediate concern to the dozens of NBA scouts in attendance were several members of the World squad who could be in the draft this June.
Chief among them was Biyombo, who exploited his 7-7 wingspan and the most NBA-ready body on the floor. After a disappointing first quarter, the visitors adapted as Biyombo asserted himself defensively and Polish guard Mateusz Ponitka (who scored a team-leading 17 points) attacked the basket. "He runs the floor, he defends and he's cat-quick,'' said an NBA scout of Biyombo. "His offensive skills need to be developed, but his athleticism screams out.''
"He's Ben Wallace, basically,'' said another NBA executive.
The NBA evaluators spent the week guessing at Biyombo's age as they attended the World Team's practices. A half-dozen NBA scouts and executives told me they believed Biyombo was older than his listed age of 18, based not only on his mature body but also his leadership skills, as he led the Internationals through their pre-practice stretches and was their most vocal and energetic player. Questions of his age won't necessarily damage his stock in the draft, as his maturity will be viewed as strength. He is forecasted as a first-round pick with a chance to sneak into the lottery.
When I asked him Thursday how long he had been playing basketball, he postponed the discussion. "I can say that at this time I prefer to focus on the Nike week,'' he said with a grin. "So I will be around here after the game and I'll let people know everything they want to know, and people will question me everything they want to question and I give the answer.''
On Saturday he said he had been playing basketball since he was 12, both on an outdoor court near his home as well as on an indoor floor at his high school.
He began his professional career in Yemen in 2009, and then moved to the Spanish fourth division in 2009-10. He quickly worked his way up to Spain's ACB, the top national league in Europe, where he is currently averaging 6.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 14 games with the club Fuenlabrada. "The way I play here, I play everywhere,'' he said following the Hoop Summit. "In the ACB I play with a lot of smart guys, I play with a lot of strong guys, and when I step on the court I just want to kill them.''
Biyombo is a highly engaging character. His favorite NBA players are a couple of All-Star power forwards, Kevin Love and Kevin Garnett. "Kevin Garnett is intense player -- every time he's not on the floor, his team is missing him,'' said Biyombo. "I want to (play) defense as a team. I want to help everybody on my team and I want to win the game ... That's what I heard from my first coach, that the good offense is defense. If I block a lot of shots then it's good offense. If I get a lot of rebounds, then it's good offense.''
After the game, Biyombo stood in the locker room and thanked his teammates and coaches for the opportunity to spend the week in their company.
Another potential first-round pick is Brazilian 7-footer Lucas Riva Nogueira, an 18-year-old known as "Bebe'' (Baby). He is a slim 218 pounds, though he has gained 20 pounds in the last year. And while he is extremely raw offensively, he intrigued scouts by driving left-handed from the top of the key to finish with an explosive dunk during practice Friday. But the competition appeared too fast for him Saturday, leaving him with just four points, six rebounds and one block in 13 minutes.
Davis Bertans, a 6-10, 215-pound Latvian forward who plays for Union Olimpija in Slovenia, could also be a first-round pick. "He's a better shooter than Dirk Nowitzki was at the same age,'' said the NBA scout. Though he was a cold 3-of-10 for eight points Saturday, Bertans demonstrated his skill by catching a pass around his ankles and going straight up to convert a corner three.
His father is a coach in Latvia, and as a result Bertans has been playing basketball for as long as he can remember. "Some people say it's like immediately after the birth I was in the gym,'' he said. "My mother said when the ball stopped and there was silence, I was crying; but when somebody was dribbling the ball, I was sleeping.''
A couple of other intriguing Europeans were 6-7 guard Evan Fournier of France, a prolific scorer who plans to enter the draft in 2012, and Croatian Dario Saric, a 6-10, 215-pound forward with the skillset of a point forward, three-point shooter and rebounder. Saric (seven points and six rebounds) was the youngest player in the game -- he celebrated his 17th birthday this week -- and initially was visibly nervous with the ball against the U.S. speed. In the second half, he became more assertive while using his size to rebound, converting a three-pointer and pushing the ball in transition.
One NBA executive cited Saric and Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 Canadian forward from Portland (he is committed to Kentucky next season) as the two Internationals with the best upside physically. "There are so many things that can happen over the next few years -- he doesn't mature, or he doesn't improve,'' said another NBA exec of Saric. "But he's a guy with size and a tremendous feel for the game, and to see that at his age is uncommon.''