TORONTO - A mischievous grin comes over Bismack Biyombo's face whenever he's asked about his time in Charlotte, where the Raptors' back-up centre spent the first four years of his pro career.
Respectful by nature, the mild-mannered big man is always careful with his words as to avoid disparaging his former team and the organization that gave him an opportunity to realize his NBA dream. But it's not too difficult to read between the lines.
Biyombo couldn't be happier to be in Toronto and, on Friday, there was a little extra bounce in his step as he helped lead his new club over his old one.
"I wanted to win this game just as much as I wanted to win the [first meeting] in Charlotte [last month]," the 23-year-old admitted following the Raptors' 104-94 victory.
Toronto signed Biyombo this summer after the Hornets declined to offer him a qualifying offer, making the 6-foot-9 centre an unrestricted free agent. Through no fault of his own or the organization formally known as the Bobcats, it was time for a change.
Three of his four seasons in North Carolina were of the losing variety. In the lockout shortened 2011-12 campaign, his rookie year, the team won just seven of its 66 games. His role would frequently change as he bounced back and forth from the starting lineup to the bench. Although he eventually blossomed into the rim-protector they hoped he could be, his offensive limitations prevented him from living up to the expectations of being a seventh-overall pick. Naturally, the relationship soured.
His game remains the same. The strengths, the weaknesses, nothing's changed in that regard. However, the Raptors have given him an opportunity to start fresh, free of unrealistic expectations, and he's taking advantage.
"With the system and the way the team is playing, I just fit in perfectly," Biyombo said. "To me, it's been at the right place at the right time."
"No disrespect to Charlotte but I think he had a big role once [Jonas Valanciunas] went down," said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. "He had an opportunity to get his confidence. I think the game is slowing down for him a little bit now. He's catching the ball better. He's finishing better in traffic. I think that just comes from opportunity."
Coming off the bench for the second straight game after starting 18 in place of the injured Valanciunas, Biyombo gave his team the spark it needed, exactly when they needed it the most. The Raptors trailed by eight after three quarters and it looked like the troublesome Hornets, a club Casey referred to as their "nemesis", would get the better of them once again. They would go on to out-score Charlotte 30-12 in the fourth, holding the visitors to 19 per cent shooting. Biyombo played all but one minute in the frame.
With just over nine minutes to go, Toronto having just tied the game, Biyombo drew a loose-ball foul on former-Raptor Tyler Hansbrough. After the two similarly aggressive players exchanged a few words, Biyombo, who has quickly become a fan favourite, began playing to the crowd, firing them and the team up in the process.
"Man, I was just getting hyped all game, getting back into the game," said Biyombo, who finished with six points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in 24 minutes. "I was just being excited and trying to find a way, and trying to find a way to get my teammates moving."
"It's always great to have that type of player on your team who is able to get the crowd involved like that and get us going," said DeMar DeRozan, who had a game-high 23 points in the win. "You see that fire and energy going, him and [Patrick Patterson] kind of sparked that in the second half on the defensive end and got us going and that is what we needed."
Even at 23, Biyombo is seasoned beyond his years, both on and off the court. He's already developed a reputation for being one of the team's most vocal players on the defensive end. With Wednesday's game against Washington on the line and a crucial defensive possession upcoming, the centre gathered the five guys who were on the court together for another huddle just after a timeout, where he did almost all of the talking.
"We love it," said DeRozan. "It's great to have a teammate like that and if any one of our guys did that we are going to sit there and listen. It's great to have that, so especially when Biz does that we are going to listen to every single word and stand by it and afterwards we are going to make jokes about whatever he said, but it's cool. It definitely gets us going."
"It is very welcomed when you can understand what he's saying," Kyle Lowry joked. "I think that the way he approaches the game and our team and defence is how we all should do it. Honestly, when it comes to defence he's our anchor. He's our backup but when he comes in the game he's really focused and we rely on him to clean up a lot."
Biyombo did an admirable job filling in for Valanciunas, who knows where the Raptors would be without him manning the paint in the absence of their starting centre, but the role he returns to is one that's more suitable for a player of his skill set.
Offensively, Biyombo's presence is challenging to overcome, particularly for Lowry and DeRozan, who are the recipients of additional defensive attention when they share the floor. Toronto scores 98.9 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on the court this season - lowest of any regular rotation player on the team. For the sake of comparison, they score a team-best 110.1 points per 100 possessions when Valanciunas is on the court. Biyombo's work on the boards and defensive end, while game-changing at times, doesn't quite make up for his offensive limitations.
Still, with his energy and toughness, Biyombo can still be a difference in 15-18 minutes off the bench. Most importantly, he gets it. He knows why the Raptors brought him in and has accepted his niche.
"It's tough, but there is no shame in having a role as an elite defender and an elite rebounder in the league," Casey said. "I'm not just talking about an average defender, he's an elite defender."
"When he was younger, like anybody else, he obviously wanted more," said Hornets coach Steve Clifford. "Listen: He's an easy guy to cheer for. He's a worker. He's got great character. He cares about his teammates. He has a way to play that's both effective for him and helps your team win."
"I think he understands now who he is and what he is," Casey continued. "He's a rebounder and a defender. He doesn't have to worry about scoring. He's an opportunity scorer. We are excited to have him on our team."
The memories he has of his time in Charlotte may not be his fondest, but he doesn't seem like one to harbour any ill will or hold grudges. In fact, his experiences have given him unique perspective for a professional athlete.
"To me it's not about working or not working," he said. "It's just about what the world is giving you. Things were the way it was in Charlotte. To me, I've moved from one place to another one since I left my home. To me, it's no difference. I play this game not for any other thing than chasing my dream and having fun."
"It is a gift. I'm blessed. I'm thankful for it. You can't take things personally. There's no one time I've done that in my life. I'm not going to. They made their decision, the way it was. Hey, it's a business. People look at it like a business. For me, I look at it as a game, period. I go out there, have fun, and play the game that I was blessed to play."