His longtime trainer, Joe Abunassar, vividly remembers how naive Serge Ibaka was when he arrived in the U.S. in 2007, coming from Spain as a 17-year-old. Abunassar's Las Vegas-based Impact facility was the first one the Congolese-born power forward stepped into in the states, and Abunassar and his team looked after him that summer.
"No one knew who he was," Abunassar said of Ibaka, who was sent there by his Spain-based agent, Pere Gallego. "He was clueless. He was hilarious. We had a group at 9 (a.m.) and 10 and 11. He just stayed the whole morning. He kept saying (mimicking Ibaka's African accent), 'I want to work again. I want to work again.' It was kind of funny because he spoke French and kind of broken Spanish at the time and obviously his native dialect. Very little English. He had no money. We were buying him lunch. He really didn't have that many clothes."
Two years later, when Ibaka arrived in Oklahoma City—the franchise drafted him in 2008, but kept him in Europe one more year—his teammate Kevin Durant said he still couldn't speak English well and didn't know how to drive a car.
But what Durant and Abunassar both noticed at different times was Ibaka's relentless and disciplined training routine—Abunassar compared it to future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett's—which has been at the root of his rise in the NBA. In fact, Ibaka's personal manager, Pere Gallego, and Pau Gasol, who plays with him on the Spanish national team, said they're "not impressed" about his ascension in the league. They both knew that Ibaka's work ethic would fuel him to become one of the game's best power forwards.
That recognition was especially evident this season when Ibaka was Durant's steady-scoring sidekick during Russell Westbrook's recent injury absence—averaging 15.7 points per game on 56.7 percent shooting—during which the Thunder only lost seven games from Dec. 27 to Feb. 19. They're now the best team in the Western Conference at 43-14.
"I really watched him grow as a man and definitely as a basketball player. He’s grown leaps and bounds," Durant said. "He works extremely hard. It’s gratifying to see how hard he works. We’re just happy to be around him. I’m glad he’s on our team because he’s intimidating."
Just ask LeBron James about that.
Ibaka's Impact This Season
During that stretch without Westbrook, the 6'10", 245-pound Ibaka had a night when he shot a career-high 12-of-12 from the field, and two others when he was 10-of-13. And for the season—during which he's only missed one game, with the flu—the physical, super athletic specimen is also averaging 8.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, and he already has more double-doubles (19) than he had all of last season (15).
"In the beginning, his explosiveness was incredible," Abunassar said. "I was like, 'Holy crap, this kid is really going to be good.' The thing is, above all was his work ethic. He was out of his mind. He was just wanting to work all day long, and that might have a lot to do with his (poor) background and the opportunity.
"Watching (the Thunder) play now and the way he's working with Durant, and the way he's stepped up when Westbrook has been out, two things: 1) That's what the Thunder need; and 2) It's what Serge wants. The guy has an incredible drive to maximize his ability."
The Thunder's interest in making Ibaka more of a scorer came toward the end of last season, when Westbrook first hurt his right knee, tearing the meniscus in the first round of the playoffs. Also, power forward Zach Randolph dominated during the Western Conference semifinals, as the Memphis Grizzlies beat the Thunder 4-1, and Ibaka didn't do as much offensively in the series.
So entering the summer, Abunassar said he was told by GM Sam Presti and head coach Scott Brooks to work extensively with Ibaka on expanding his offensive repertoire, and Ibaka couldn't wait to continue that development.
"I keep working on my offense," the now 24-year-old said, in his still-choppy, evolving English. "I want to get much better on offense."
After years of mostly body building through boxing, yoga and Las Vegas hill running at 6 a.m., as well as fundamental basketball work—"converting his unique skills and athleticism to really playing the game," Abunassar said—offensive skills training became much more specific last summer.
"We did hours upon hours upon hours of work in the mid-post with three moves only: catch and fake and shoot the ball, jab and drive, and then he wanted to be able to finish better with going left," Abunassar said. "We could see the progress of his jump shooting and his confidence with his ability to just turn and fake, and do a one-dribble pullup."
Ibaka's younger brother, Igor, 21, who's in the same state playing ball at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, participated in the workouts, bringing aggressiveness to guarding him on the outside.
"I tried to put him in trouble when playing far from the rim, defending him very close and intense," said the stocky 6'7", 230-pound Igor. "Not an easy job."
What most impressed Abunassar was Ibaka's attention to small details during film sessions and on-court drills. Abunassar said in his nearly 20 years working with hundreds of NBA players, Ibaka came the closest to matching Garnett's scrupulous and full-speed style in the gym.
"I would be in the workouts having these flashbacks," Abunassar said. "I remember days with Kevin where we would be running a ball screen or we would be doing a particular drill, and he would say, 'No, no, the angle is off' or 'I want to put the chair here instead of here,' where a lot of guys will just do the drill," Abunassar said. "And what Kevin constantly did is he adjusted anything we were doing to make sure it was perfectly suitable for his game. And Serge does the same type of thing.
"When we would play defense on him, he would show us exactly where to stand, where to put our feet, how to guard him—he wanted to put the defender's hand here because he puts it there in the game. He would move defenders around—not so much wrong, but wrong for Serge. Serge would be in the post and he would be doing an individual move, and he'd grab one of our interns and put him in a help-side position where help might be coming from. It's funny because a lot of people would get annoyed, but like Garnett and the good ones, he really has a concern for every detail for work on."
Said Ibaka, "When we're practicing, if you tell me to do this, I have to do it right. If I miss it, I have to do it right."
With that mentality, he's sculpted a body and game that Abunassar says is "through the roof."
More Inside Ibaka's Development
Whereas in the early part of his career when Ibaka was shooting around 40 percent from 10 to 19 feet, these days he's shooting closer to 50 percent from that distance—on more attempts. The growth in his pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop skills and chemistry with Durant has been key.
"We practice both options a lot every day," Ibaka said. "(Durant) really trusts me and the team trusts more in my offense game. I've proved to be reliable with my high percentage."
In the two-man game, Ibaka has a keener eye on timing and creativity setting screens, while knowing how to open up his body to the basket quickly based on his positioning to spot up for a jump shot. And he's not hesitating and has better arc on his release.
"He’s been almost perfect in giving me an outlet when they trap me," Durant said. "He’s doing such a great job of keeping the defense honest when he makes shots. He’s doing a better job of finding the right guy, too, when the defender rotates to him. Serge is playing at a high level right now, and honestly he’s playing at an All-Star level night in and night out."
Gasol has observed his running mate's boost of confidence in the Thunder's offense.
"He feels more comfortable now and taking more responsibility," the Los Angeles Lakers forward/center said. "He's always been a very good defender, but now I think he feels more comfortable getting shots up and taking more responsibility when Russell is out, and also when James Harden got traded to Houston. So he's just getting more confident and comfortable and really consistent with his shot. I still would like to see him develop a little more of a post game, but so far he really hasn't needed it that much."
From Gallego's perspective, he'd like to see Ibaka get better on the block, creating his own shots and moving without the ball. In the meantime, Brooks pointed out a subtlety in Ibaka's evolution with the team: better communication.
"There’s no question he’s improved his game, but he’s improved his language and English skills," Brooks said. "I give him a lot of credit. There are not a lot of guys and I’m not sure any of us could go to the Congo and adjust as quickly as he has in America."
With Westbrook now back, Durant said Ibaka's strength in screening and understanding court spacing will continue to be helpful for the Thunder, building on their previous success with all of them together on the court.
"He's a guy that excels off of playing everybody else," Durant said. "He gives himself up by setting screens and rolls to the rim and the ball finds him. He sets great screens and moves the defense. He shifts the defense with his hard rolls to the basket and you have to respect his jumper."
Ibaka's impact without Westbrook could've earned him a first-time All-Star bid last weekend, but simply put, he's not playing in the Eastern Conference. In the West, his position is jam-packed, as he's contending with, based on highest scoring averages, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, David Lee, Zach Randolph and Tim Duncan.
Ibaka believes he's a season away from receiving that honor.
"When you play in the NBA, everybody wants to play in the All-Star Game," he said. "I really want to. I want to keep going hard and keep practicing, and I think next year maybe they're going to vote for me."
Ibaka also knows he's "very close" to winning Defensive Player of the Year. Last season, he finished third, behind Marc Gasol and James. But Ibaka only has one thought in mind: what's going to happen in June. And he has a bold prediction.
"We're going to make the Finals," he said. "We want to win a ring."
Brooks knows that's the only thing he's thinking about.
"He’s always thought like a champion," he said. "He’s improved his game and the success that he’s having this year is not because he’s all of the sudden started working this year. No, that kid has worked from the day we drafted him. This is all a byproduct of all the work he’s put in the past four or five years."
Ibaka's Special African and Community Connection
Ibaka's committed work extends to his African roots: taking care of Igor locally and his family overseas in France and the Congo. He remembers a "happy childhood" growing up in the Congo, but when the civil war came about in the late 1990s, he said he made it a priority to escape the country to find a way to provide for his family. That's when he dedicated his life to basketball, hoping to erase hardship with a better way of life for his loved ones, and he found playing opportunities in France and later in Spain, where he was discovered by Gallego.
Igor said most of the family—Ibaka is the third youngest of 18 siblings—still lives in France and the Congo, and that they all get together every summer. "It’s a special time then; we really love to be with our family," Igor said.
Igor also discussed the mentorship role his big brother has in his life, like setting an example of going to bed early regularly for better health. Igor even said Ibaka applies his "very good" cooking skills and prepares multicultural meals for him, including one of his favorite American dishes: pasta with shrimp or chicken and vegetables.
"He’s my older brother and looks after me," Igor said. "He gives me good advice and makes me work hard to achieve my dreams and become a better person. We enjoy eating African food or watching African (television) series that makes us remember the old times."
That reflects Ibaka's dedicated service to his country through the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Africa summer initiative, where NBA players and coaches train top youth ballers and lead life-skills seminars on values such as leadership, character development and living a healthy lifestyle. Even before BWB, Ibaka, who had no access to basketball courts growing up and schooling during the war, was conducting his own hoops camp in the Congo.
Ibaka, who's been involved the past three years in BWB in Johannesburg and will be there again this summer, has earned high admiration of two longtime African basketball leaders: NBA global ambassador and former player Dikembe Mutombo and NBA Africa managing director Amadou Gallo Fall. With the support of Ibaka's leadership—he even tweets about his African involvement to build awareness—hundreds and hundreds of kids have been placed in basketball and educational programs.
"Serge is a guy that truly appreciates the opportunity he's had and I think kids back home can relate to him," Fall said. "He grew up in Congo and he used his talent to really better his life and his family, and at the same time, what I'm most impressed with is he's never forgotten where he's from. He's committed to giving back and he does that every summer. It's a true testament to who he is as a human being."
Mutombo, who's known Ibaka since he was a baby—his father, Desire, grew up with Mutombo's oldest brother, Ilo—said the African kids "love him because he has a name over there." Another factor behind Ibaka's popularity among the youth is this season's first partnership between the NBA and African sports network SuperSport that airs up to three live regular-season games per week—including this upcoming playoffs and Finals—in 47 territories throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, NBA.com/Africa, the league's official website for local fans, is hosted on the SuperSport's website.
Like the emerging TV platform, Ibaka's work in Africa is continuing to get bigger.
"Serge is very aware of what happens in Congo and doing a great effort to give back to give opportunities to the youth," Igor said. "He’s doing many projects by himself and cooperating with UNICEF, orphanages, hospitals, schools, (basketball) courts and education through sports. I’m very proud of him."
Gallego believes that when Ibaka gets more accustomed to living in the U.S., he'll be more marketable in the states through different campaigns, based on the community influence he's already had back home.
"He's a very smart guy and has a good business sense," Gallego said. "I think that when his English gets better and he can express himself in a more natural way, people will be able to discover that behind a physical player there is a young man with his head in the right place, with clear ideas about life and strong values."
That was highlighted this week when Ibaka reportedly came over to help a young man in Oklahoma City who had lost control of his bike and landed on his face, per TMZ. After he was disoriented, Ibaka brought him inside a mall, got him some water and helped clean off his wounds.
"He was so nice, really nice," the fallen victim said. "He really didn't need to take time to do that, but it's awesome that he did."
The Lasting Memory
To this day, Ibaka still has trouble reflecting on what he experienced in Africa. When asked about it, he takes a long pause, then a deep breath.
Finally, he says: "It's very hard for me to explain.
"People don't really understand. It's unbelievable and now I'm in the NBA. It's crazy."
Mutombo, who lost his mother, Biamba, from a stroke in 1997 because she couldn't make it to the hospital due to all the gun violence in the streets during the civil war, shed more light on what Ibaka might be thinking.
"We don't talk about it, but we know. There's nothing to talk about," Mutombo said. "You experience the same thing; what can you talk about? I think the war is indescribable even for Serge, for his friends and family members. They lost a family member, including my mother. You try to forget about it."
Ibaka's presence and success in the NBA helps erase that memory.
"Any kid from Africa who gets a chance to get the opportunity to wear the NBA uniform is a big passing for all of Africa," Mutombo said, "especially for African basketball players."
Now, imagine what a Thunder championship would mean for the country. That's something Ibaka has no problem talking about.