I'm here today to write about Serge Ibaka, who piqued my interested when I covered the Orlando Pro Summer League last July. I thought then that his length, athleticism, and skill would ensure he had a promising career ahead of him.
Watching him in the playoffs against the Lakers has convinced me that I was right, though I'm not here to gloat, or anything. In blocking 7 shots last night, he became the youngest player to swat at least as many shots in a postseason game, breaking Dwight Howard's record by almost 2 full years.
That feat got me thinking bigger picture. Just how special a shot-blocker is Ibaka anyway? To find out, I put these endpoints into a season search on basketball-reference.com:
Block rate > 5.0% (Ibaka's at 5.5 this season)
Total minutes played > 1300 (Ibaka's at 1323)
As you can see, Andrew Bynum and Josh Smith put up similar stats at 19--a year younger than Ibaka--but neither exceeded Ibaka's 5.5% block rate. Andrei Kirilenko (5.9% at age 20), Shaquille O'Neal (5.7% at age 20) and Smith (6.2% at age 20) were the only players to best Ibaka's block rate at the same age. That's one Hall-of-Famer and two fringe All-Stars, though Smith somehow got snubbed from this year's team.
The conclusion to draw here is that Ibaka's doing things defensively that few people have ever done at his age. The next step for him is to cut back the fouling; only Bynum fouled nearly as much per 36 minutes as Ibaka does (5.3). Once he does that, and learns to do enough offensively that he can play longer stretches at a time, he's looking at a future All-Star berth. To me, he's the Thunder's best long-term option at power forward. Should Ibaka emerge, Oklahoma City could move Jeff Green, a natural small forward, to the bench.
I look forward to Ibaka taking on a greater role next season, and to his keying future success for the Thunder. But the great thing is that he's a treat to watch, even now. And we can't buy him a drink in this country until September. Incredible.