How Serge Ibaka's Game Grew Up

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2014

Serge Ibaka may be a former dunk contest participant, but his game isn't loud and neither is his development.

The counting numbers may not fully show it, but Ibaka has steadily improved this season. His growth is subtle, yet apparent. 

It's happening. Ibaka is getting much better.

Kevin Durant is getting all the attention for the Thunder of late and deservedly so. Durant's current hot streak has been only a hair short of basketball perfection. But he hasn't carried the Thunder to a 43-12 record completely by himself.

Ibaka is on a mini-hot streak of his own. Over his past 17 contests, he's averaging 17.4 points per game on 61 percent shooting. All those games are without the injured Russell Westbrook, the point guard who has been mainly responsible for getting him the ball over the years.

For now, we know Serge Ibaka is getting better, and he's helping Durant shoot the Thunder to the top of the Western Conference standings.


The Evolution of Ibaka's Pick-and-Pop

As a basketball-watching society, we always talk about who can get open with the ball. 

Kevin Durant creates shots for himself. So does Kobe Bryant. So does Carmelo Anthony.

What we often tend to ignore in that conversation, though, are the types of players who create space for themselves more subtly. And the players who can manipulate a defense without the ball can be just as valuable as the ones who can get shots off when the rock is already in their hands.

Ibaka is of that ilk.

The Thunder power forward might be the best player in the entire league in knowing when to slip a screen. And more so than anything else, that's why so many of his 18-footers are open. He knows exactly how and when to find holes in the defense.

Ibaka has always been a wonderful pick-and-roll power forward. But now, he's getting even better.

The problem for a defensive unit in guarding a Durant-Ibaka pick-and-roll is that it has to watch two actions: Durant's movement, and Ibaka's eyes.

Watch those eyes next time you see Serge come to the top of the key to set a screen for Durant.

He's not looking at KD. He's surveying the floor, waiting for that second defender to bite on some sort of Durant move. And as soon as he sees an aggressive step in the direction of the ball-handler, that's when he pops or rolls.

Serge Ibaka on Mid-Range Jumpers
SeasonIbaka Mid-Range FG%League Average Mid-Range FG%

Of course, Ibaka's screens aren't always regulation picks. (See: the inappropriately wide base in the picture above.) But they work. He gets away with the illegalities.

It's like Ibaka is the NBA's version of the O'Doyles, but he didn't even need the banana peel to slip. He's slipping screens all on his own.

One of the reasons Ibaka's mid-range game has become so spectacular is because almost all his shots tend to be open. Now, not all of that is on him.

We used to see Serge run the pick-and-roll with Russell Westbrook all the time, and defenses obviously aren't going to leave a ball-handling Westbrook alone coming off a screen. So it makes life much easier for Ibaka when defenders favor Westbrook's side of the floor.

Now, Ibaka is developing a similar chemistry with Durant which never truly existed to this extent before.


Newfound Chemistry with Durant

Ibaka used to rely so much on Westbrook to get him the rock, especially in those pick-and-roll situations. Now, though, he's developing a new style with Kevin Durant as his facilitator.

Since Westbrook re-injured his right knee, Durant has assisted Ibaka on 67 of his 185 made field goals, significantly more than anyone else. And over that period, only 37 of Ibaka's field-goal makes have been unassisted.

So let's do some quick, elementary math. That means Durant has been the passer on more than 45 percent of Ibaka's assisted field-goal makes. And this is over a period of 26 games, hardly a small sample size.

That's about the same percentage as Westbrook had with Ibaka last season. At least at its simplest statistical levels, Ibaka's chemistry with Durant is becoming comparable to his rapport with Russ. 

Now, Ibaka has improved. Remember those eyes; they can see developments in a game that most can't.

Durant, though, has progressed, as well. He's done it as a playmaker. He's done it as a passer coming off ball screens. 

So when Ibaka rolls or pops at the perfect time, Durant now finds him. And Ibaka is in a preferable shooting situation more often than not.


Adjusting His Shot

Look at someone like Chris Bosh, arguably the best spot-up, mid-range jump-shooter in the NBA and possibly the very best pick-and-pop power forward in the whole league. Bosh has one simplified release that he goes to with every jumper.

And that's fine for Bosh. It's a process and clearly it works. But there's something to be said for mid-play adjustments, part of the game at which Ibaka is starting to excel.

Ibaka has been great from mid-range for some time now. This isn't new, though he probably didn't start getting proper national recognition for his shooting until last year.

Where Ibaka has changed, though, is in the way he shoots. He used to go straight up. Same motion, all the time.

Partly, that's what you want in a shooter. You want someone who has consistent form that he replicates over and over again. You want someone who has mastered the muscle memory of a jump shot to such a degree that he always has the same release.

So Ibaka doesn't necessarily change his release or fundamentals depending on situation. That would just be an excuse for having unrepeatable form. What he does, instead, is adjust his shot's arc when he has a big man coming at him for an aggressive closeout.

Clearly, there are differences in Ibaka's open-jumper release and his guarded-jumper release:

In the video of the first shot, Ibaka has a good look at the hoop. So he spots up and takes his usual line-drive jumper.

In the second example though, Andray Blatche comes at him with a hard closeout. Blatche is 6'11" and can jump relatively well. The attempt may be a makable one for Ibaka, but it's far from an open look.

So Ibaka has to adjust. He fades just a bit and lofts the rock in the air a tad more. Blatche can't get to it, and the ball swishes through the net.

That's what adjusting a shot looks like. It's perfectly situational, and Ibaka is turning it into an art.


Shot Creating

Ibaka has always had that pick-and-pop game. 

He shot an unfathomable 51 percent from mid-range last year. He's never even shot worse than 40 percent from that range in a single season.

So Ibaka can make jumpers when someone else helps get him open. Now, though, we're seeing an improvement in his ability to create shots for himself. 

In previous seasons, Ibaka's offense almost always came from set-ups by his teammates. Of his 446 field-goal makes last season, 337 of them were assisted.

That style, though, is perfectly acceptable. There aren't many power forwards out there who can take the ball and consistently create good looks for themselves. That's a rare ability to find in a big man.

Now, though, Ibaka is starting to develop some form of that skill.

It's not his primary offense. It's not even his secondary offense. But it's a necessary last resort we've seen Ibaka go to at times this season.

We've seen him put the ball on the ground and make a play off the dribble. We've seen him take the rock to the hole. We've even seen him integrate a step-back jumper, which he's used a few times with a dying clock, into his game.

If Ibaka's game ever gets to a point where he can make those sorts of plays consistently, we're talking about a different player. He'd instantly become one of the NBA's upper-echelon offensive bigs.

For now, though, Ibaka has made the leap to highly productive offensive player. And at age 24, he probably won't even hit his ceiling for another few years.


Defensive Improvements

Ibaka's defensive game has always been a point of contention among basketball minds. Actually, you'd struggle to find another player whose defensive stock was much more volatile than his. 

He's always had the flash. He's always had the raw numbers. That's how he's managed to lead the NBA in total blocks three seasons in a row. 

So Ibaka has rode those statistics down the mainstream boulevard and has picked up accolades along the way. Those awards include not one, but two spots on the First-Team All-Defensive squad, one in 2011-12 and one in 2012-13.   

But Ibaka's defensive game was always flawed. It was good. Maybe it was even a little better than that. But it was flawed.

He wasn't the best post defender in the league, relenting position far too often on the low block. And the Thunder defense wasn't much better statistically (subscription required) whether he was on or off the floor.

Ibaka could rotate from the weak side and smash a shot attempt out of bounds, but he was overzealous on ball-fakes and often left his feet too early. That meant his Thunder teammates had to scurry through their rotations to recover for him.

But if you're a defensive anchor, you're the one who is supposed to be doing the recovering. And therein lies some of the issues. 

He had loads of defensive potential, but he hadn't fully realized it, which was fine. Ibaka is only 24 years old.

Who are we to say he has to be at his peak by that young of an age? He's not LeBron James. Those expectations wouldn't be fair.

Now, though, it's all starting to change. 

Ibaka's post defense has vastly improved though the numbers don't fully show that.

Last season, Ibaka allowed opposing players to shoot 40 percent when he guarded them in the post, according to MySynergySports (subscription required).

This season, offensive players are shooting 54 percent against Ibaka in the post, a seemingly massive step in the wrong direction. But those Synergy statistics, while often helpful, aren't always perfect considering they don't apply context to the stats.

Ibaka's post defense metrics don't account for the Thunder's slow help defenders, with which Ibaka plays. Kendrick Perkins doesn't have the agility he once did. And Steven Adams is a rookie who is still learning the ins and outs of NBA defense.

Now, Ibaka fights for position in the post much more effectively. You don't see his man catch the ball with a foot in the paint nearly as often. And on top of that, his overanxious, block-happy style seems to be fading fast.


Defensive Evidence

Ibaka used to miss occasional rotations on the defensive end. There were a few reasons for that.

Sometimes, he would favor the strong side of the court too much and leave weak-side, off-ball players open. Other times, he wouldn't recognize a cutter in time to help properly. 

He might as well have lived in the casinos. He was the definition of a gambler on the floor.

But now, he's developed his defensive skills and all he ever seems to do is protect the Thunder defense from getting zapped. He's the ultimate "Serge Protector."

The word here is "maturity". Ibaka's game has matured. He's refined it, and we've seen that in his decision-making, exemplified perfectly by this play against the Orlando Magic from March of 2013:

Remember, this is from last season. And this is the epitome of Ibaka's inconsistent past defense.

The Magic try two side pick-and-rolls on this possession.

The first attempt doesn't work because Ibaka blows it up perfectly. He's patient, he's fast enough to help quickly on the ball-handler, Jameer Nelson, and he recovers fast enough to cut off the passing lane to a rolling Andrew Nicholson.

But Orlando tries the exact same play again, and that's when Ibaka gets burned.

After defending the pick-and-roll fundamentally only a few seconds early, Ibaka becomes too aggressive. This time, he stays on Nelson for far too long and even tries to swipe at the ball.

Trying to flail at a ball-handler's thighs while playing help defense during a pick-and-roll usually isn't the best idea. And Ibaka learned exactly why when the screener darted away from him.

Instead of rolling, Nicholson pops, and he's left wide open for an 18-foot jumper. Swish.

This year's Ibaka handles that play differently. He doesn't stick to Nelson for too long on that second screen from Nicholson. He doesn't unsuccessfully gamble.

2014 Ibaka has become too mature to pull that sort of move.

That lack of patience we always saw in the past is starting to fill in with loads of self control. Ibaka surveys the floor so much better with those same eyes that tell him when to slip his screens.

This year, he's not biting on all those pump fakes. He's containing. He's rotating. He's helping better than he ever has before.


And He's So Young

Again, Ibaka is just 24 years old. He was born only a few months away from being a '90s baby. Someone with his physical and mental capacity was going to improve. We just didn't know when.

Now all of that is happening before our eyes. 

He's always been one of the top-tier pick-and-pop forwards in the league along with guys like Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge. Now, he may be No. 1 all by himself.

His game is expanding, and it's not necessarily because of physical skills. He's learning, he's adjusting, and it's become clear that the changes in his style this season are more mental than anything else.

Knowing when to adjust your shot? That's basketball IQ.

Realizing when to slip a screen? Same thing.

Improving defensive decision-making? That's as mental as it gets.

Sure, Ibaka is physically improving. 24-year-olds tend to do that, and we've seen that development in parts of his offensive game. But when we talk about the emergence of Serge Ibaka, we're talking about something that's finally clicked upstairs.

The Thunder have managed to stay ahead of the pack in the Western Conference even without Russell Westbrook, and they've actually gone 22-8 in games the All-Star point guard doesn't play. Sure, part of that has to do with Kevin Durant and his seemingly never-ending hot streak. But part of the credit has to go to Ibaka, as well.

He used to need Westbrook. He used to rely on him all too heavily to open up passing lanes. Now, he's comfortable flying solo.

Ibaka is averaging 15.7 points per game on 57 percent shooting in 26 games since Westbrook got hurt a month-and-a-half ago. He's doing just fine without him. 

That's because this isn't the Serge Ibaka we're used to seeing. It's the new Ibaka, the "Serge Protector." And because of the substantial, yet subtle leap he's made this season, the Thunder have a good chance at keeping up their torrid pace for the rest of the year.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of Feb. 15. Advanced statistics came via unless otherwise stated.


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