When DJ Mbenga's agent said that if things went well, Mbenga would be signed by either the Lakers or the Heat, he initiated a bit of speculation about what exactly his comments meant. A workout for Miami could hardly suddenly create interest for Mbenga's presence back in the purple and gold. At the same time, if Mbenga were happy with some offer from the Lakers, he would not be working out for the Heat. So it seems as if the most likely scenario is that Mbenga has a lowball offer on the table from the Lakers and is looking to draw either a more significant offer from Miami (or possibly the same pay rate and more playing time) or to urge the Lakers to increase their offer if they intend to keep him.
The Lakers are probably asking themselves what Mbenga is worth. Specifically, they are probably asking whether he is worth anything more than the Veteran Minimum salary. It is worthwhile to look at the Lakers' current lineup, gauge Mbenga's skills, and determine whether he is worth only the Vet Min or whether he is worth more.
The first thing that should be said about Mbenga is that he is a raw talent. Although he spent parts of five seasons playing in Belgium, he has logged just 121 games in his NBA career and has started just two of those. This supports the suggestion that he is inexperienced. A quick look at his game when on court is sufficient to see that his hesitancy offensively and poor shooting success at the free throw line cement the deal. The second thing that should be said is that his ceiling is not very high. Mbenga is nearly 27 years old and while he has shown some growth, especially in the past season with the Lakers, one thing Mbenga has not shown is anything remarkable. When gauging the top end of a player, one looks for the exceptional performances, rare as they may be, not the more regular 'solid' performances. Think of the analogy with a stick of dynamite and a hammer. One big hit will detonate the dynamite; one hundred taps will not make a difference. A four-block game aside, Mbenga has not approached anything remarkable from a scoring, rebounding, or defensive point of view (see something on his defense below). Bearing these limitations in mind, it must be stressed that there is a pivotal role for a player like Mbenga in the NBA and specifically on a championship caliber team like the Lakers.
After noticing that Mbenga is raw, the observer will be drawn to the fact that his athleticism is undeniable. Mbenga moves quickly and fluidly on the court, has a lot of energy, good leaping skills, and has very quick feet. Meanwhile, offensively, it would be appropriate to say that Mbenga is limited. DJ takes a high percentage of jump shots and while his effective field goal percent is not bad for a Center, it is not all good news. His range is limited to perhaps ten feet from the basket so he fails to draw opposing Centers out of the lane and create paths to the hoop. If his 44 career free throw attempts are any indication of his shooting ability, Mbenga is a poor shooter (just under 57% in his career). Despite his athleticism, Mbenga is too tentative to attack the rim. He may also not have the handles. Despite all this, it would not be quite right to say that Mbenga is wholly incompetent offensively. Despite not playing many minutes and so not having the benefit of finding a rhythm, DJ averaged nearly one point per three minutes because his speed up and down the court allows him to get off attempts when defenders slack against him.
Defensively, Mbenga's tools are impressive, but his execution is lacking. There is no doubting his effort and sometimes the results are impressive. He has, for instance, averaged one block per 11 or 12 minutes, which is impressive. But while the block numbers look good, they are almost all athleticism blocks. In other words they are the kind of block a defensive coach merely tolerates as opposed to celebrates. At seven feet tall, 255 pounds, and with little body fat, Mbenga has the build to be a brute on the defensive end. Yet he is nothing of the sort. Mbenga uses his speed and athleticism too much, refusing to body up regularly. The results are yielding too many rebounds, picking up too many fouls, and giving too much confidence to players who have no business attacking a player with Mbenga's physical attributes.
What would be interesting for Mbenga would be to see him work against Andrew Bynum regularly. Bynum is one of the biggest players in the game and may be stronger than Mbenga. Mbenga could benefit from having a player like Bynum, who has an offensive game, attacking regularly. Mbenga must use his weight to slow the attack and make the attacker spend some energy. The same move when on offense, using his weight to back down defenders, would tire his opponent. With the speed he possesses, Mbenga could find himself getting more easy buckets as he faces a tired defender.
While this may all be academic, as no signing information has been mentioned, one has to be pleased with the prospect of returning a player with half a season of triangle experience, loads of energy, and athleticism. With just Chris Mihm as a true Center backing up Andrew Bynum, Mbenga would be a great investment. Bynum missed 47 games last season and Mihm has averaged just 11.5 games per season over the last two. So there is no question that a third Center would have a role on the team. With Phil Jackson, the triangle experience is often the make or break point for a player addition. His potential for becoming a solid defender and scoring in transition should make him a Laker next season. The question seems to be money, if the words of Mbenga's agent ring true, but competing offers seem lacking. Look for Mbenga to wear purple and gold next season.
Travis J. Rodgers