The Resurgence Of Serge Ibaka

Serge Ibaka is having a career year for the Toronto Raptors. His 16.6 points per game and 1.2 assists are the highest he’s ever totalled. On the defensive end, he’s not quite the Iblocka of years past but, he’s averaging 1.4 blocks and 0.6 steals with 5.3 defensive rebounds per game. He is nearing the end of his prime years and the past three or so seasons seemed to indicate a not so steady decline in performance. It looked like he was never going to get back to the level he was at during his time in OKC. This year, the idea of him not impacting the game has seemingly disappeared. He’s second on the Raptors in points, rebounds, and player efficiency (players over 20 mins per game). 

Given how he played in last year’s playoffs, I had already written Ibaka off as an impact player. Before the season, I was calling for him to be traded for anything and seeing how he’s been playing, I’m grateful that he wasn’t shipped off. So why is it that Ibaka has made a huge step forward?

First of all: He’s playing center consistently for the first time. According to Basketball Reference, he has played 97% of his minutes so far at the five. In his previous years in the league, he was playing the majority of his minutes at the power forward position. At the beginning of his career, playing power forward was perfect for him. They would generally stay tight to the basket and rarely work beyond the 3-point line. With that, Ibaka was asked to protect the rim, corral rebounds and make the occasional mid-range jumper. In today’s game, power forwards are much more mobile and guys like Blake Griffin and Kevin Love are averaging 6+ 3 point attempts per game. Just the threat of these guys pulling up from beyond the arc forces a player like Ibaka to step up and give room for those guys to blow by and get open closer to the rim. 

As the power forward role has changed, so has the role of the center. 5 years ago, Ibaka never would’ve been able to bang bodies with guys like Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard or Al Jefferson. This year as a center, he’s going up against the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Al Horford and Karl Anthony Towns. These guys generally stay closer to the basket but aren’t the overpowering post up guys like we used to see.

Ibaka is also taking much fewer three pointers and shooting closer to the basket. He has only taken 50 three pointers this season which is only 12% of his total field goal attempts. In each of his past four seasons, over 30% of his shots were three pointers. Considering he’s hitting 29% of his shots from deep, it’s probably a smart decision to take less of them. 

Since he’s taking less shots from three, it only makes sense that he’s taking more shots from close range. 52% of his total field goal attempts are coming from within 10 feet (26.5% from 0-3 feet and 25.5% from 3-10 feet). In both of his last two seasons, he only shot 32% of his shots from that area which is crazy considering his FG% within three feet is slightly over 78%. 

It takes one thing to get to your spots but another for people to get the ball to you when you get to that spot. Thankfully, Ibaka has the league leader in assists on his team, Kyle Lowry. Is Lowry the best passer in the game? I’m not sure I can answer that right now. What I do know, however, is that Lowry knows how to get the ball to his teammates in spots where they can hit shots most efficiently. This season has shown how much he can make his teammates better. Lowry has assisted on 43% of Ibaka’s baskets (63 of 146) and on average, hits Ibaka with 2.3 assists each game. 

Ibaka has been one player who has shocked me in every game so far this season. Whether it was his career high 34 points vs. the Lakers to his perfect shooting performance against the Jazz the very next night. He has been doing everything right so far and deserves all the recognition and some that he’s been getting during his impressive run to start the season. 

Usually I hate when I’m wrong but in this case, Ibaka has surprised me with good play and impactful stats. He might not be the same defensive presence as when he was in OKC, but frankly, who is? He’s taken his game to a whole other level and if he can keep it up, not many teams will be able to stop the Raptors deep into the playoffs. Hell, he might even be a dark horse for the Most Improved Player award.