This is the next piece in our series of Player Report Cards, in which we evaluate and assign a grade to the performance of each member of the 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers. Next in line is Didier Ilunga-Mbenga, but you can call him DJ.
Didier Ilunga-Mbenga is a great man. His story is one of kindness, tragedy, perseverance, and philanthropy. Born in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Didier was taken prisoner along with his father and brothers. Their crime was that Didier's father worked for a government that was overthrown, and the new regime had a very strict interpretation of "cleaning house". Didier's father was executed, but not before negotiating/bribing the release of his son, who fled the country en route to Belgium.
DJ Mbenga is a rather marginal basketball player. He can be useful to have on your team, if for no other reason than the fact that he is 7 feet tall and not lacking in motor skills. Unfortunately, his size, athleticism, and the desire which, considering his history, is almost a given, are just about the only positive basketball attributes he has. Big men are generally the least skilled men in basketball, both because their size makes dexterity difficult, and because they don't have to be all that skilled to be successful, but the sad truth is that Mbenga is on the low end of the skill spectrum even for a big man.
That's not intended to be overly harsh, but a spade is a spade, and DJ Mbenga isn't a very good basketball player. He can't shoot very well (46% for a guy his size is terrible). His per 36 minute averages for points (10.6) and rebounds (8.8) do not impress, and he fouls too much (5.5 fouls per 36) though he is a great shot blocker (3.3). His shooting motion is best described as horrific, and watching him "execute" the triangle is equal parts amusing and depressing. He responded with a couple nice games (including 1 double-double) when both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were out hurt early in the year, but the truth of the matter is that no player besides Adam Morrison had the coaches going more out of their way to make sure he didn't see the court. The Lakers were more likely to go small and have Josh Powell or Lamar Odom play the pivot than for DJ to get burn outside of garbage time. Mbenga is the very symbolism of the Taco Unit, and if we're keeping the talk strictly related to basketball, the Taco Unit blows. Or is that the Dacos unit?
Wow, that was vicious. I'm glad that's over. See, I wanted to get all the negatives out of the way in one go, so that we could get to the truth about DJ Mbenga. The truth is, we love DJ. We don't love him because of his unintentional comedy, or in a piteous way, such as what is reserved for Adam Morrison. We don't love him just because he wears that gold shirt with "Lakers" across the front. And we don't love him because he has trouble with making a hard "T" sound.
We love DJ because he tries, all the time. We love him because he is one of the few players in the league without a single ounce of pretentiousness. We love him because, despite getting paid literally the least amount of money he could earn for an NBA career of his length, he is one of the NBA's most visible philanthropic forces. He knows that he is blessed to be able to make a significant amount of money (and yes, even the veteran's minimum is very significant), and so he puts everything he has into sticking around, and a good portion of what he earns into giving back to a world that nearly sentenced him to death.
There's no word on whether Mbenga will get picked up, either by the Lakers or by someone else. Since he's played so many years in the league, he might be getting out-priced by his own experience, literally unable to take a contract that is small enough for some team to want him. The Lakers would surely bring him back if he could come at a lower price, and I'd be willing to bet DJ would to if he could, too. If he's played his last game as a Laker, we'll be sorry to see him go. Adam Morrison may have made us laugh, but DJ made us smile, and that smile didn't need any humor at all.
Player Grade: D+
Human Grade: A Mother-fucking Super Plus