'Cats' future belongs to rookies
BOSTON -- In the perverted world of a rebuilding NBA team, injuries bring forth promise. And dumping expensive talent creates hope.
"I tell them that they have to relish this opportunity because normally they wouldn't be getting as many minutes as they're getting now," said Paul Silas, coach of the worst team in the NBA. "It's not like we're going to have to do it this year. You're looking at a few years before these guys are going to be ready."
The future of the Bobcats belongs to rookies Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker, the center and the point guard. The Bobcats were headed for the lottery before injuries were suffered by three of Charlotte's top four scorers -- Gerald Henderson, D.J. Augustin and Corey Maggette -- to generate opportunities for Biyombo (the seventh pick) and Walker (ninth) to play starters' minutes. The short-term cost has been a horrible 3-22 record following their 94-84 loss to the distracted Celtics on Tuesday.
Boston starters Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal each entered the season with as many or more years of NBA experience as the entire starting lineup of the Bobcats (15). The Celtics were able to focus on the lifetime achievement of Paul Pierce, who in the third quarter surpassed Larry Bird as the No. 2 scorer of the league's most successful franchise, because the Bobcats lacked the wherewithal to beat them. Two games earlier they earned the worst loss in the short history of their franchise, a 112-68 thrashing at Portland.
The Bobcats' long-term hope is that they've filled the two most difficult positions with highly ambitious prospects. It's a harsh plan, considering the Bobcats spent the last couple of years dumping the salaries of Tyson Chandler (who helped the Mavericks win their championship) and Gerald Wallace (who pushed the Trail Blazers into the playoffs) in order to reshape their roster amid the new collective bargaining agreement. By outfitting Walker with jersey No. 1 and Biyombo with No. 0, the Bobcats seem to be re-launching around a simple binary code.
The undermanned Bobcats play badly -- they've been outscored by a league-worst average of 13.6 points -- but their main rookies don't act like losers. Walker plays with joy and Biyombo, in spite of all he needs to learn, is stubbornly enthusiastic. "I tell them, 'You cannot afford to be negative, and I'm not going to let you be that way,'" said Silas.
At 19, Biyombo is the youngest player in the NBA's, and at 6-foot-9 with a 7-7 wingspan, he's listed as a forward even though he has been playing center offensively because of his lack of shooting range. He learned to play basketball as a 12-year-old in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and moved to Spain after being discovered playing at a tournament in Yemen. Before he joined the Bobcats, the best opponent he had ever played against was Esteban Batista, a 6-10 Uruguayan who has been starring in Europe since playing 70 games for the Hawks across 2005-07. "He just knew how to use his body," said Biyombo.
During his two seasons in Spain, Biyombo was often the most athletic big man on the court. He no longer holds such an obvious advantage, especially because he lacks the technique to make use of his athleticism. "He really wants to learn, he's working hard -- as hard as anybody I've ever seen," said Silas. Scouts have been comparing him to Ben Wallace since he produced a triple-double of 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks at the Hoop Summit last April. But Silas believes a summer of hard work will enable Biyombo to make jumpers, "and once he gets that I think you'll see him develop in every aspect of his game."
In the meantime, Biyombo has refused to act like a rookie, even if it means confronting older teammates at practice. "I'm not afraid to talk, because I don't want to lose," said Biyombo, who speaks five languages. "Me personally, I don't control myself, saying, well, this guy's old, you're going to talk to him with respect. I'm going to talk to you like my teammate because I want to win the game. So I got to grab your hand and tell you this and that -- and I will, because I want to win the game."
How do his teammates react when confronted? "Well, sometimes I might be wrong," he said. "Sometimes you're going to be wrong, but they're going to correct you -- 'Hey, young fella, you were wrong right there.' And they help you. That's just part of the game."
The 6-1 Walker is learning to become a point guard after his scoring drove UConn to the national championship last year. "Guys are a lot bigger, faster, stronger, and at times I tend to let guys speed me up instead of playing at my own pace," he said. "In college it took me three years. By the time my junior year came, that's when everything slowed down for me."
So he understands he'll need time to adapt to the NBA pace. Yet he showed promise with a triple-double of 20 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in a January loss to the Wizards. "You're not going to see anybody his size getting as many rebounds as he gets," said Silas (though he neglected Rajon Rondo's ability in that area). "And that just shows you the mental and physical toughness that he has."
Walker and his young big man are going to need that toughness over the remaining 11 weeks. For his part, Biyombo doesn't feel qualified to forecast their future together. "That's a tough question -- you don't know what's going on in the office, what they're thinking about us," he said. "I really don't know what they're thinking, I can't control their mind, I can't control what's coming. But the only thing I can control is me getting better on the court day by day."
Other troubled franchises are rebuilding around star talents: The Wizards have John Wall, the Hornets have Eric Gordon. But no such assurance can be drawn from the Bobcats' roster. The ultimate goal for this season is to transform Walker and Biyombo into valuable assets, whether they remain in Charlotte or are moved elsewhere, and to turn this otherwise hopeless season into the No. 1 pick via the lottery. "I'm going to be on them to do the right things," said Silas. "But I'm always going to be positive with them. They can do. And that's what I want them to be is positive."
Staying upbeat will be an achievement in itself.