Nobody has taken LaMelo Ball’s winding path to the NBA, from undefeated high school teams in Chino Hills to Lithuania then through Australia.
Hornets center Bismack Biyombo relates as well as anyone; he had his own unique, winding path to the league. Born in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a struggling copper mining town), Biyombo traveled with friends to play professionally for the first time in Yemen, and then ended up in Spain before grabbing scouts’ attention at the 2011 Hoops Summit in Portland.
“I was telling LaMelo when I first got to the league I was his age because I came from overseas as well,” Biyombo said. “The transition, how far you grow from playing overseas versus when you see kids who come out of college, it’s totally two different mindsets.”
That shared uncharted path helped Biyombo — the veteran NBA big man in his 11th season — become the mentor and friend a player like LaMelo needs to learn how to navigate and thrive in the NBA.
“I’m talking and showing some film and those two are behind me hugging, arms around each other,” Hornets coach James Borrego said recently. “I love what I’m seeing there: The partnership, the mentorship. That’s huge for LaMelo and his growth.”
“It has been a joy to see the whole process happening,” Biyombo said. “[Our young players] leaning on you, asking for information and questions, and being able to help the coach, I think overall it has been fun, helping the coach, the organization head in the direction we push for.”
It’s been a fast friendship between the confident rookie and the worldly veteran, despite the fact some in the NBA Twitterverse thought there was friction between them after they had a little play fight following a Hornets win last month.
“LaMelo is like my little brother,” Biyambo told NBC Sports, adding the pair laughed about the video and reaction. “From the first day when he get here, we never had to force anything. It’s funny because, whenever people talking about us… people don’t see the real story behind it and how far we go back. We always joke. And at the end of the day, the media’s job is to get the story out there, and our job is not to give them a story. But obviously, in that situation, we did give them the story.”
Biyombo thrives in the mentor role; he played it last season in Charlotte with Malik Monk, who is in the midst of his best season as a pro right now. Because Biyombo has been the 19-year-old searching for his NBA path — leaning on Boris Diaw and others as mentors — he knows not to force anything. He just lets it come naturally.
“As far as being a leader, you don’t want to push people to listen to you or to do certain things,” Biyombo said. “When they need questions answered, they know where to ask it. When they need somebody to lean on, they know where to find it. One thing we have done a good job with overall, they know that I’m there. They know if they have questions, I’m there.
“They also know that I’m always going to keep it 100. I’m always going to tell them the truth about a situation I see, what I hear. I think that’s how you build a better relationship far beyond basketball.”
Biyombo’s mentoring does not stop when practice ends. Or with LaMelo.
He has five younger siblings — the youngest of which is still in high school — and all of them are with him in Charlotte. His parents are still back in the DRC, but his siblings are all here with him now finding their path to a better life. Biyombo said having them near him through the pandemic has been a “blessing.”
“The story is my mom and dad being able to trust me to help them become what they want to become in the future,” Biyombo said. “I think it’s only the right thing to do for me, because, as I have grown and succeed in life, I look at families where [people say] ‘I’m the only one who succeeded, I’m the only one who made it.’ But I’ve always wanted to make sure that as I succeed in life, my family also succeeds in whatever they want to become.
“My dad has done that for his brothers and I got to learn from him. And them allowing me to be the parent, the big brother, the mentor all at once, all that stuff, it’s overwhelming. I think they’re all doing great.”
One of the key areas Biyombo mentors young NBA players is talking to them about their diet — 19-year-olds can subsist on pizza and Taco Bell, but that’s a bad habit for a professional athlete thinking about a long career.
Biyombo, like a growing number of NBA players — Chris Paul, JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, and others — follows a strict diet that is largely plant-based and includes intermittent fasting, eating on a schedule he says lets his body digest food without feeling bloated.
Of course, he has his cheat days.
“My cheat day the other day was fish with a lot of vegetables,” Biyombo joked. “I showed the picture to my trainer and he said, ‘that’s a healthy day for a lot of us.’ It’s a habit, and I’ve built good habits over time.”
Again, Biyombo had mentors when he entered the league — on diet, it was Hall of Famer Ray Allen.
“When I got in the league, Ray Allen came up and talked about his diet and everybody said, ‘this guy is crazy,’” Biyombo said. “But now what people are eating is far beyond what Ray Allen was eating, what back then was crazy. It’s a lot more information, number one. And number two, a lot more people are evolving into the diet and what you eat and all these things, so I think it’s just having access to more information now. People are more educated on it.”
The key for Biyombo is not forcing his diet and lifestyle on LaMelo or other young players; it’s more leading by example. But young players in the NBA quickly learn a diet of fried wings and burgers is not going to work.
“A lot of our young guys have made a lot of adjustments. I don’t think it’s just me, I think it’s them understanding as professional athletes, your body, it’s a must to take care of,” Biyombo said. “You’ve got to put in it good fuel; you can’t just feed it whatever.
“It’s 72 games this season, it’s 82 games most seasons, it’s not 50 games (like college or overseas). So for them it’s understanding what you need to put into your body and how to take care of your body — after games icing, stretching, all these treatments, massage — they have learned over the course of time. They are sometimes you catch them eating things they are not supposed to eat, and I tell them. Then the next day they tell you they ate something better, they tell you ‘I had this last night, can you believe it’ so overall it’s fun…
“When I started my diet it was just for me, but it’s far beyond my teammates. Now I get a lot of messages from people I don’t even know asking about my diet,” Biyombo said. “But it has changed my life. I feel good. I feel energetic, I enjoy this.”
And he is enjoying his time in Charlotte, with a team exceeding expectations and now with legitimate playoff dreams.
The postseason is just one more area where Biyombo looks forward to mentoring his newfound “little brother.”