In case you missed yesterday’s look at James Harden, well, here’s a link. Because today is all about the man, the myth, the legend, Serge “people love me so much that they still continue to give me tons of nicknames” Ibaka.
Serge Ibaka – 6.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.33 blocks, 54.3 FG%, 63.0 FT% in 18.1 minutes a game
Playoffs – 7.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 57.1 FG%, 70.0 FT% in 25.5 minutes a game
He only played 18.1 minutes a game and led the team in blocks. He only played 18.1 minutes a game and was ranked #1, leading all rookies, in blocked shots for the 2009 Rookie class and finished in the Top 20 in the league in blocks (#19). He was third on the Thunder in rebounds, first in FG% and 2PT% for players who took at least 5 shots a game (despite being 8TH on the team in minutes played) and was the 4th best rebounder from his rookie class despite averaging fewer minutes (just barely, Blair only avg 18.2 a game) than any other player in the Top 5 in rebounding.
Did I mention he only logged 18.1 minutes a game? Or that he finished second in FG% for all rookies, too?
In short, it’s hard to imagine a much more efficient year for a rookie big (let alone one who was learning English, adapting to a completely different culture and getting his first taste of the NBA’s speed and physicality) who was expected to spend the majority of his time in Tulsa and wound up becoming an integral part of a playoff, 50-win team, than Serge Ibaka had.
To put it mildly, Serge Ibaka had a nigh historical rookie year when it comes to efficiency for a big man. And yet he may only be scratching the surface of his potential. After all, he was supposed to be a project. One that would take 2-3 years to develop to the point where he could have any kind of impact on a game.
Try 2-3 months.
It’s that reality, that exciting mystery that captivated and continues to ensnare the imaginations and hopes of all Thunder fans when it comes to just how great the still only 20 years old big man from the Congo can become.
Think back, if you can, to that first glimpse of Serge in Orlando at Summer League. The athleticism, the length, the tenacity, it was all there, but A) it’s Summer League, B) he looked a little awkward and unbelievably foul prone as he was struggling to keep up with the frenetic pace that is desperate newcomers trying to either prove themselves or even make a roster and C) it’s Summer League…no one who’s been burned before by the bright lights of a practice gymnasium gets their hopes up on Summer League.
But the fact that Ibaka was one of the breakout surprise stars served notice that we might have gotten a huge steal with the 21st pick. And that the learning curve for our friendly neighborhood Chewblocka, Iblocka, Air Congo, etc was one of the highest I can remember.
In fact it’s kind of hard to remember back to the first part of the season when Ibaka saw almost absolutely no playing time at all unless there was a blowout. And when he did see the floor, oh boy, he definitely played like a guy who was expected to rock out the D-League in order to adjust to the speed and talent of this league. Though I did enjoy the foul outs because, by golly, if Serge was going to foul you there was no way you weren’t going to remember it the next day.
But by mid November, all of that started to shift a little. In fact, I can remember the very game that my eyebrows were raised in surprise at how quickly Ibaka was adapting to the NBA because despite the game being a blowout loss to the Lakers in Staples Center, you could see that the talent and distant outline of an impact player was definitely there.
Ironically, it seems this entire season was and might always be intertwined with the Los Angeles Lakers. That loss to the Lakers in November was the first and last game of the entire season before the finale against Memphis that Ibaka logged 30+ minutes on the evening of November 22nd, 2009.
His final tally: 11 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks.
(Side note – Serge must really like playing the Lakers because two of his three 5+ block games came against the defending champs this season; the other being the Memphis Grizzlies).
I know what you’re thinking because it was probably along the lines of what I was thinking. “Well, it was garbage time against second teamers so that has to be considered.”
Until I realized, “Wait a minute, he had 11 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks against ANY NBA competition?! Second teamers or not, that’s insane! Mullens isn’t even doing that in the D-League!” And yet, it was only the beginning. From there on out, Serge’s minutes varied but his role in the rotation did not. In fact, it only solidified with each passing game and his steadily improving performance.
And that, I believe, is what excites me the most for Ibaka’s development next year and beyond: He just kept getting better and better and better. At first it was only rebounds, put backs and blocked shots. But then a surprisingly sweet jumpshot made an appearance–and then a drop-step fallaway post shot–and then a head fake, up and under layup–and then his FT% steadily improved–and then, at long last, his soft put backs and lay-ins transformed into rim-rocking, bowel-shaking, “did you see that?!” slams that single-handedly broke the entire back of the city of Toronto and may have ruptured Mrs. Daily Thunder’s ears.
And then his arms became wings and Air Congo was born. And then the Lakers felt the wrath of seven, count em’ SEVEN, blocked shots in a PLAYOFF game AT STAPLES CENTER! Still improving even further into the playoffs, Serge averaged more minutes, more points, more rebounds, more blocks and better FG% and FT% in his first ever taste of the NBA’s biggest stage.
And still, the surface is only being scratched.
Next Stage: This is hard. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure I can corral Serge’s development for next year into a definitive structure because he apparently has no true ceiling–and if you put one on him, he jumps right through it and past the vertical leap test device’s highest setting in the process (true story, Ibaka did that).
But that being said, I think it’s pretty obvious to all of us what Serge can improve upon and become even more effective at in his second year. For starters, Ibaka must improve his hands when it comes to receiving passes. Ibaka may have actually averaged 8 points a game if he could only catch the ball as softly as he does rebounds. But that right there is a good sign; Ibaka shows the clear capability at having soft hands by how firmly and swiftly he can grab rebounds that bounce off the rim and high into the air.
Secondly, Ibaka is still developing his offensive game even if he is light years ahead of where any of us thought he would be in terms of his jumpshot, confidence to shoot and understanding of when to attack the rim/rebound and when to layoff and wait for a missed shot to bounce off so he can jam it home without an offensive goaltending call. But there is still a lot of work to be done and I’m excited to see what kind of a back-to-the-basket game Ibaka can develop, if he can initiate his own offense in the post and if he and Westbrook begin establishing a lob/alleyoop understanding with one another that was hinted at later in the season.
Lastly, and this is one that every rookie must and usually does improve upon, Ibaka has to overcome mental lapses in focus and eliminate the tiny mistakes that can turn a game (a point unfortunately hammered home in the Game 6 playoff loss). But you know what, Ibaka will be a better player because of this season’s ups and downs because he is clearly the type of guy that knows no other way to play than to give every last drop of effort and to not be intimidated by anyone or anything.
And that may be my favorite part about Ibaka: Even though he has almost unreal athleticism, an insane skillset for his size and an enthusiasm for the game and his teammates that could power the Ford Center, what impressed and engrossed me the most about Ibaka is that no matter the opponent, the moment or anything else that could and maybe even should have intimidated him, Ibaka looked it straight in the eye and said, “Let’s do this.”
And that confidence and unwavering belief in yourself AND your teammates, not to mention always having the back of your guys to the point that you will be the enforcer of an entire franchise despite playing in only your first year—-that’s what the elite competitors have and thrive on.
And Ibaka embodies it. Probably because his entire life has been forged by conquering insurmountable odds without thinking twice about if he even could.
Prediction for the Opening Tip – You got me.
No, seriously, I have no idea. I continue to believe that Ibaka is a PF who can play some spot minutes at C on defense but whose style and build is almost strictly a PF on both sides of the court and if he is put at center full time, will not be put into a position that best utilizes his talents. Yet that will mean nothing to Brooks if he believes starting Ibaka at the 5 spot is a better option for the team than bringing him off of the bench at the 4.
Of course, I’m also the one who firmly believes that Ibaka should probably be getting the starting nod at PF if he continues to develop because his ability to influence a game and what he would bring to the starting unit (not to mention what Green could bring to the second unit) could seriously change this team’s status from a playoff contender to a potential championship contender if maybe one more small piece was added.
But that’s obviously another topic for another day, so let me wrap this up by saying that no matter where Ibaka starts off a game at (either on the bench or doing the opening tip), he will absolutely gobble up 30+ minutes a game. And because of that, I truly believe Serge Ibaka will even improve upon his efficiency next year to the tune of 10.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game, shooting 56.1 FG% and 72.5 FT%.
And if that does happen, then we’ll start to see just how special Serge Ibaka could really be.
Tune in tomorrow for the Surgeon General of Execution, Eric Maynor…