When he came into the League nearly a decade ago Serge Ibaka was heralded as the most promising basketball prospect of his 17 siblings. Billed as a physical specimen with a knack for rebounding and with the potential to anchor a defense, Ibaka was a rebounding and blocking machine in Spain. With the perfect name for his specialty, Serge I-Block-a cemented his NBA reputation around swatting away enough shots to block the most shots in the entire League twice and earned himself 3 All-Defensive Team honors. On the offensive end, Serge slowly worked his way outward as the League progressed to shoot more and more threes and became a trademark “three-and-D” guy. But with time comes change, and the once high-flying “Air Congo” saw a 2017 season where he averaged nearly career lows in blocks and rebounds, spelling what most assumed was an aging Serge slowing becoming like so many of his kind before: another big man assigned a few dozen minutes off the bench to help the next generation take the reigns.
But wait, what is this? Serge Ibaka, so far this season, is averaging career high’s in field goals, free throw makes and attempts, assists, points per game, two-point percentage, usage AND percent of points. How could Serge be doing this in his 10th season? What is leading to this Re-Serge-ance (I’m sorry)? The Raptors’ new team structure and defensive adjustments have allowed Serge to unleash his new offensive game and help head up one of the best teams in the League this season.
For starters, I think it’s important that for the first time in his career, Serge Ibaka is playing Center as opposed to Power Forward for all of his minutes this year, splitting all of his minutes with big man Jonas Valanciunas (who he played his third most minutes with last year). The Raptors have utilized this split to play Serge or Jonas interchangeably depending on who the opposing Center is based on matchup and have assigned all Power Forward minutes to the improving Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Serge now has the ability to play against bigger and slower centers, which still allows him to showcase the athletic ability he came into the NBA with that was so sought after.
In the past, Ibaka was relied upon heavily on the defensive side of the ball. Remarkably, Ibaka has been on a top-5 defense in 6 of his seasons, and currently is a part of the League’s best defense. His career low in blocks hasn’t hurt his defensive rating since last year and a big part of this is due to Kawhi Leonard, Anunoby, and Danny Green locking down the wings, making Serge having to contest fewer shots inside. This, partnered with Serge no longer having to draw assignments against the League’s bigger dudes, has allowed Serge to still contribute without having to be relied on as he has been in the past.
On the offensive side of the ball, Ibaka is utilized heavily to initiate the attack. Almost every offensive set with him on the floor begins with him setting a top of the key on-ball screen or wing perimeter off-ball screen to get him into pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop action with the ball-handler. This is where Serge’s midrange game becomes a threat. Surrounding him with shooters like Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Green, and Leonard allows Ibaka to activate his nasty triple-threat game from the high post. Used as a floor-spacing facilitator from the high post, Serge has been showing off his passing leading to his career-high in assists and utilizing his classic 18-foot jumper when left open on the pick-and-pop. The Raptors are putting Ibaka in a position to do his best and he’s seen his per 36-minute scoring increase more than 4 points above his next best season. Serge has taken almost no corner threes or deep corner twos. He has a clearly defined role on this team and it’s a big part of what has put Toronto in the NBA Finals discussion.
Serge has always left something to be desired with the amount of time it takes him to make decisions passing, which is something to be nervous about in the postseason when split seconds can decide games. For now though, Ibaka is surrounded by enough shooting to where quickly making the best pass isn’t imperative. Ibaka also has a tendency to hesitate on shots sometimes, seeming to be unsure whether he should just take the jumper or look to pass. These hitched shots almost never go in, but as he continues to spend more time in this new role he should improve his ability to recognize his move better.
Ibaka has become a great example of how long a player can last in the League if they show the ability to modify their game. Players like Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, and Dwyane Wade are all in their late 30’s (early 40’s for Mr. Carter) and still see the floor due to their games developing new facets and taking on new roles. Ibaka has the ability to have similar staying power as he continues to become a better pick-and-roll big and decision maker on offense. The Raptors are thinking Championship this year and Serge still has the ability to be an effective Championship-caliber contributor on both ends of the ball.