How Serge Ibaka Can Take His Game to the Next Level

Jared DubinFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 01:  Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 1, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  The Rockets defeated the Thunder 107-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Four years into his NBA career, Serge Ibaka has already made tremendous strides. He entered the NBA as a raw physical specimen, but has molded himself into one of the league's best two-way power forwards. Still just 23 years old, Ibaka has even more room to grow. 

Ibaka's defensive prowess is well-knownhe has led the league in blocks per game in each of the last two seasons despite checking in outside the top-80 in minutes per game in both years. He still has some issues with positioning and over-aggressiveness on that end, but it's safe to say he's already an impact defender and will continue to be for many years to come. 

While Ibaka is an extremely efficient offensive player—he sported the league's highest true shooting percentage among power forwards that averaged at least 25 minutes per game last season—he's not yet an extraordinarily well-rounded one, and that is where he can take his game to the next level. His offensive game consists mostly of catch-and-shoot jumpers on pick-and-pop plays or spot-ups, cuts, offensive rebounds and the very occasional dive to the rim on pick and rolls. Of Ibaka's 190 field goal attempts out of the pick and roll last season, 138 of them were jumpers, compared to 52 dunks, layups, hook shots and floaters combined, per mySynergySports.

As I detailed early last season, Ibaka and Russell Westbrook have developed excellent chemistry on pick-and-roll plays, with Ibaka usually floating to the area above the free throw line after setting a screen, which gives Westbrook space to turn on the jets as he hits the corner. One of the league's best mid-range shooters, Ibaka understandably prefers to pop off his screens rather than roll most of the time.

Kendrick Perkins' rangelessness undoubtedly plays a factor in this as well. If Ibaka were to continually roll through the middle of the lane, Perkins' defender could easily abandon him and essentially cover two players near the rim, similar to what happens in this video, where Nikola Pekovic completely abandons Hasheem Thabeet to cut off Ibaka's path to the basket. By popping out into the mid-range area, Ibaka makes it tougher for that defender to get close to him. 

Short of Scott Brooks finally acquiescing to the demands of everyone on the Internet and finally cutting Perkins' minutes by a drastic amount, there's not much that can be done to solve that potential spacing issue. Still, injecting some more variety into his pick-and-roll game is something Ibaka should work on. After all, he was an excellent finisher near the rim when he did roll to the basket. Of those 52 dunks, layups, hook shots and floaters Ibaka attempted out of the pick and roll, he made 38 of them, per Synergy.

That last clip is instructive of another area Ibaka can improve upon his game. While he's shown flashes on occasion, Ibaka has not really been much of a threat off the dribble so far in his career, whether off the catch in pick and rolls, in isolation or in the post. A player with Ibaka's quickness, length and size can have extraordinary advantages off the bounce if he develops just one or two go-to moves. A Blake Griffin-esque rocker step would be a perfect move for Ibaka to mimic. 

Putting the ball on the floor a little bit more often would also help Ibaka overcome another of his deficiencies: getting to the free throw line. For his career, Ibaka averages only 2.7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. Some of that deficiency can no doubt be attributed to his relatively low usage rate (he's used fewer than 20 percent of his team's possessions while on the court in each of his four NBA seasons), but he's due for an increase in usage this season with the departure of Kevin Martin.

After losing James Harden and then Martin in consecutive offseasons, that third scorer void is open for Ibaka's taking. Between his jumper and his finishing ability, Ibaka should be able to handle an increase in usage without losing too much efficiency. It's just about increasing the variety in his game and adding a few new tricks. 

One thing he experimented with last season was the corner three. After attempting just six shots from beyond the arc in his first three seasons combined, Ibaka took 52 treys from the corners alone last season, connecting on a respectable 36.5 percent of those attempts, per Even with his league-best mid-range field goal percentage for players with at least as many attempts last season, Ibaka's effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the greater point value of three-point shots, on corner threes was still better.

Like Chris Bosh before him, Ibaka would do well not to overdo it on the three point attempts, but moving at least some of those mid-range shots back behind the line could prove beneficial, as well. Sixty-two of Ibaka's 66 three-point attempts came as a spot-up shooter last season. One way he could add some variety to his three-point attack is by occasionally popping out beyond the three point line when he runs those pick-and-pop plays with Westbrook or Kevin Durant. It's only a few feet farther than what he's doing most of the time now. 

The last, and arguably most necessary, area of improvement for Ibaka is also likely the one that will take the longest to see results. Ibaka's microscopic assist rate is slowly climbing with each passing year (pun not intended). But, if he's going to soak up more of Oklahoma City's possessions, he needs to be able to dish the ball out if he finds himself in a crowd. As he has with some off the dribble moves and three pointers, Ibaka has occasionally flashed the ability to deliver a quick pass off the catch on a pick and roll. It's not something that's completely foreign to him. 

That said, he's obviously no Tim Duncan or Marc Gasol in that area of the game. The preternatural ability to make all different kinds of passes off the catch doesn't come quickly or easily, and it's likely Ibaka will never develop into the kind of passing savant Duncan or Gasol is—"likely" meaning "will never happen" in this case. But, if he can become even a Tiago Splitter-level passer, that would mean nearly tripling his career assist rate, which could do wonders for an OKC offense that is already the best in the league.