When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden just before the start of the 2012-13 NBA season, it was clear that the team would need Serge Ibaka to step up as a secondary star. He has answered the call.
One of the best draft picks of all time value-wise, Ibaka has gone from a raw young kid who could jump to one of the NBA’s most promising young defensive big men. He has done the most growing in just the last season.
Ibaka is currently playing more minutes per game than he ever has in his career. He is responding to that increase in playing time by posting his most efficient and best statistical season of his career.
The biggest, and possibly most surprising, improvement Ibaka has made is in his offensive contributions to the Thunder. Gone are the days when he was viewed as a one-way player who teams did not have to guard.
Ibaka is averaging a career-high in points per game, free-throw percentage and field-goal percentage.
|Season||Points Per Game||Field Goal Percentage||Free Throw Percentage|
The reason for this improvement in these areas is Ibaka’s work in the offseason. A year ago, Ibaka was not able to hit the open jumpers he would get off the pick-and-roll with Russell Westbrook.
This season, he is almost automatic from that range on the floor. Not only does that help the Thunder by putting points on the board, but it also makes that play virtually unstoppable. The opponent either has to give Ibaka that shot or let Westbrook drive to the hoop. Now, neither is close to ideal.
Ibaka is also getting better on the defensive end.
While his blocks are actually one of his only statistics that are down from last season, his actual one-on-one defense continues to improve. There have been times during his short career when he failed to be a major difference-maker on defense despite his blocks.
That was because of a lack of defensive discipline. Ibaka would not be in the right spots or would sacrifice position to try and get a block. Watching him this season, you can clearly see he is learning how to better combine his athletic shot-blocking with defensive fundamentals.
That development might actually answer another question many fans have about why the Thunder seem to consider Kendrick Perkins so valuable. Perkins may not be what he once was, but he does know how to play sound, fundamental defense, even if his body does not always allow him to do so.
Perkins is a mentor for Ibaka, and that is probably his biggest value. Ibaka’s athletic ability and potential could make him a superstar with the right discipline and mentor. Perkins is the perfect guy to teach Ibaka how to play.
That mentorship has yielded positive results this season, as Ibaka has continued to develop into a star on the defensive end by getting even more fundamentally sound.
This progress on both ends of the court is making Ibaka a more complete player right before our eyes.
He is getting better and better on offense, especially when it comes to hitting his jump shot. His defense is improving as well, getting more fundamentally sound while retaining that ability to guard the rim.
Ibaka’s improvement has made him a bigger piece of the Thunder puzzle as the team moves forward. Luckily for them, they have him signed through 2017.
Who knows? If he keeps improving at this rate, he may become equal with his superstar teammates, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The potential is certainly there.
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