Dense droplets of saturated air hang thick around the rusted metal rim, the humidity resisting the flight of the worn leather ball shot after shot. Dust disperses at each bounce of the faded basketball as the chorus of dribbles, feet pounding towards the basket and the familiar clang of an unforgiving rim echoes around the outdoor court.
He catches his breath, inhaling the 89 percent humidity and bouncing the ball a few more times for good measure before returning home, a home lying at 0º00´ North of the Equator. A home of tropical temperatures at the hot and humid equatorial river basin of Brazaville, Congo. A home that he grew up in without electricity and running water; the same home that served as the cradle to his still developing craft, one in which he honed outdoors for the majority of his young life, not playing an indoor basketball game until only a few years ago.
And now a few years later, Serge Ibaka finds himself in a place very unlike the sub-tropical climate of his home, in a culture very different from his Brazavillian heritage and in a city where he must learn, yet again, their native tongue so that he can further the education that has spurred him on his whirlwind journey across the globe.
Yet one constant remains. The worn leather ball, the familiar clang of an unforgiving rim and the passionate talent that has brought him thus far. Because wherever Serge Ibaka has gone to continue playing and growing in the sport of basketball, one thing persists throughout all of the changes in scenery, culture and language: The love of the game.
And it is that game that has become his home, his one true constant despite all of the change, and it is his undeniable skill at that game that generates what so many Thunder fans currently find themselves wrestling with: The Ibaka Conundrum.
3.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, .92 blocks (and 2.4 fouls) in only 14.4 minutes. Those stats don’t jump out at you. Maybe when you take a closer look at the minutes played do you perhaps raise an eyebrow and mutter a, “Hmm… he does seem to do quite a bit in a short period of time,” but you eventually write it off to “being such a small sample size, must be skewed,” and so you decide to tuck that little bit of information into the back of your head for future consideration.
And then you see him play.
You see the athleticism, the swift feet and fantastic timing on jumps, the hunger to empty himself of all energy to make a difference and the intelligence to learn, to adapt to this new level of skill and eventually overcome it.
You see what could be. And that revelation, that fleeting glimpse into the gilded mirror of what might be (11 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks against the defending champions, perhaps) is what forces you to ask yourself a question. It is the age old question that every fan, team and front office wrestles with when you combine a promising young player with a glaring position of need in the team’s composition: Do you sacrifice immediate team success to speed up the promising player’s development?
Now if this was two years ago, or even last year, the obvious answer would be, “Yes,” if not, “Of course.” But this Thunder team is different (thankfully!). They have a chance, a legitimate chance, in almost every single game they play to walk away with a win. Let me repeat that: The Thunder can win almost any game they play. And that changes things.
Because more important than developing one player who might or might not fill your organization’s biggest area of need is the vital imperative to develop a winning culture for your entire franchise. This is why, no matter how much I selfishly want Serge Ibaka to play 25-30 minutes a game, I understand the nights that Nick Collison, Nenad Krstic and even Jeff Green eat up those minutes with their veteran savvy and (at least fewer) mistakes. Ibaka, as all rookies do, especially rookie bigs, will get into foul trouble, he will turn the ball over, he will be out of position and he will make mistakes to the point that I fear I might punt one of my remote controls into my television and then be in a world of hurt.
He’s young, he’s inexperienced and he’s trying to adjust to so many different things that he continues to amaze me in that regard alone. But he also shows flashes, flashes of post dominance and offensive ammunition far exceeding the “raw” moniker he was given when he submitted his name in the 2008 NBA draft. Quick glimpses of shot-blocking rage, rebounding fervor only matched by black-holes and his sweet, effortless jumpshot force me, once again, to wonder if 14.4 minutes a game is enough for him RIGHT NOW, and not because I want him to develop faster, but because when the stars align and the game slows down for him, Serge Ibaka is the most dominating post presence the Thunder have and have had since the franchise’s relocation to Oklahoma City.
He’s the type of player every Thunder fan has been clamoring for since Westbrook showed he could play point guard better than any of us thought on draft night, since Thabo was lifted from the Bulls in a trade deadline steal, since Harden continues to play like a veteran despite his rookie status and since Durant furthers his ascent to superstardom and Jeff Green has games where you say, “Boy, maybe he really can be an all-around game changer at PF.”
But the question lingers, the conundrum endures: Ibaka is not that type of player, that answer… yet. So how do we do what’s best for the team AND for him in the meantime?
Continue to give him 10-20 minutes a night and see how it goes? Use him as the fourth big option behind Green, Krstic and Collison? Tell him to go out and just swat the living snot out of a shot regardless of if it is goaltending or not (okay, that one is just mine, but I’m totally for it at least once a game to send a message!)?
It’s questions like these that make you glad that you’re not a coach and then furious that you’re not one when the decision disagrees with yours. Especially when Ibaka’s cultivated game continues to progress into the player he has always strived to be, even back on the outdoor court’s of his native Congo: A player any fan or teammate can be proud of and a player that we all hope feels one thing each time he steps out onto that court — like he’s right at home.
And I didn’t even talk about if he is a 4 or a 5. Talk about a conundrum.