How Serge Ibaka Has Become a Force in Pick and Roll Situations

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How Serge Ibaka Has Become a Force in Pick and Roll Situations
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Serge Ibaka came into the NBA as an extremely raw physical specimen who did not have much of an offensive game to speak of. As a rookie, 43.4 percent of his offensive plays came via offensive rebounds and cuts, compared to just 7.3 percent out of the pick-and-roll, per mySynergySports

Since then, he’s steadily increased his percentage of pick-and-roll plays with each passing year to the point where it now far surpasses both offensive rebounds and cuts in terms of usage.

Rarely does such a drastic increase in usage also come with an increase in efficiency but for Ibaka, it has. He’s gone from 1.03 points per play (PPP) on 0.48 plays per game as a roll man in pick-and-rolls as a rookie to 1.16 PPP on 2.86 plays per game this season. 

Against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season, Ibaka went 6-for-6 from the field out of the pick-and-roll, flashing the entire arsenal that has made him such a dangerous threat this season. 

On the first two such plays, he ran the action with Russell Westbrook. For the season, Ibaka is 29-for-46 (63.0 percent) from the field and has drawn four shooting fouls when finishing plays as the roll man with Westbrook as the ball handler. He’s registered 1.24 PPP on plays finished out of the pick-and-roll with Westbrook. A great many of these plays look very much like the two he ran early in the first quarter against the Spurs. 

The Thunder start each of these plays in a horns set, with Westbrook handling the ball at the top of the key, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins at either elbow, and Kevin Durant and Thabo Sefalosha in opposite corners.

Ibaka then sets a screen for Westbrook coming to his right (most often) or left (less often) and as Westbrook turns the corner, Ibaka floats out to the space right above the free throw line—he has made 19 of his 34 attempts from that area of the court this season, per NBA.com—for a jumper while Perkins rolls down the middle of the lane.

Westbrook has become something of an expert finding Ibaka through crowded areas by splitting defenders with a bounce pass or throwing a hook pass over his shoulder.

Of the 60 shots Ibaka has attempted as a roll man this season, 42 have been jumpers, compared to just 18 layups, dunks, runners and floaters combined. When he does take those closer shots out of the pick-and-roll, though, he’s nearly automatic.

He’s made 14 of his 18 layup, dunk, runner or floater attempts as a roll man this season. Because he is such an explosive athlete, and because his arms are so long, he can finish over and around defenders with ease. 

In the first clip here, Ibaka eludes the block attempt of Tim Duncan, who slides off Kendrick Perkins to play help defense on the Durant-Ibaka pick-and-roll. Durant draws both Danny Green and Tiago Splitter when coming around the pick, and slides a bounce pass through the lane to a diving Ibaka. Duncan is in fairly decent position for the block, but Ibaka is too quick.

In the second clip, Durant dribbles away from the screen and draws Duncan away from Ibaka for just a split second – long enough to ensure him a clear path to the rim on his dive. Russell Westbrook's clear out to the corner in order to pull help defender Gary Neal away from the rim didn’t hurt either.

Though he hasn’t done it all that much out of the pick-and-roll this season, Ibaka also flashed the ability to put the ball on the deck and take it to the rim later in the game. 

Again here he runs pick-and-pop action with Westbrook and, as Russ turns the corner, Ibaka again floats to the space just above the free throw line. Again Westbrook splits the defenders with a bounce pass, but this time Splitter closes hard and with a poor angle, enabling Ibaka to drive right around him to the basket.

He’s aided by Perkins’ roll through the middle of the lane (this type of roll-pop combination action is a staple of New Orleans Hornets coach Monty Williams, who claims to have taken it from San Antonio, which is where Thunder GM Sam Presti got his start) and into the path of Duncan, the only available help defender on the play, but he nonetheless was able to read the situation and see an open avenue to the basket.

Ibaka has very quietly emerged as one of the more dangerous pick-and-roll finishers in the league on the strength of his pick-and-pop game and the excellent chemistry he shows with Westbrook on those plays, as well as his elite finishing ability when he does dive to the rim. It all adds up to him ranking 12th in the NBA in PPP as a roll man so far this season. 

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