Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney have been ranking the Top 100 players in the NBA since Tuesday. They released Nos. 21-30 earlier today, and the Thunder finally made their debut in the list as Serge Ibaka was ranked 29th–on his birthday, no less!
Obviously, shot-blocking was the first reason offered for Ibaka's ranking. Golliver also highlighted Ibaka's improved scoring and offensive rebounding, while pointing out Ibaka's lack of ability to create for himself as something to improve going forward.
29. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder (F, 23)
2012-13 stats: 31.1 MPG, 13.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 57.3 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.4 PER, 9.4 Win Shares, +2.7 RAPM
Looking for a great way to burn an hour or two during the endless wait for the start of the season? Go to NBA.com's stats page and cue up a video reel of all 242 shots that Ibaka blocked in 2012-13, when he led the league in that category for the third consecutive season. The tape serves as a great reminder of just how many different ways Ibaka can protect the rim with his elite length, dexterity and timing.
Ibaka hides on the weak block, darting over to snare a turning hook from Tim Duncan. He steps across the paint to blow up a Jeff Teague drive attempt and the block is almost an afterthought. He stops long wing players cold at the rim. He volleyball spikes double-clutch runners. He extends to deflect straight-on jumpers. He goes straight up to stop turnarounds in the post. He makes the correct defensive rotation to help Kendrick Perkins and then surprises everyone by getting both hands up faster than his new mark can get off a shot. This list just goes on, and on, and on. This is a special talent, one that earned him All-Defensive first-team recognition for the second season in a row and placed him third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.
This ranking puts Ibaka sandwiched between some very well known and established big men. Veterans Kevin Garnett and Tyson Chandler hold the two spots (ranked 28th and 27th respectively) directly ahead of Ibaka, while the next tier is in sight as Roy Hibbert, Al Horford and Joakim Noah are ranked 23rd, 22nd and 21st. Ibaka's spot does place him higher than some other notable names, including Brook Lopez, David West, Josh Smith, Zach Randolph and Pau Gasol (30th, 31st, 34th, 35th and 36th).
It's hard to argue Ibaka being ranked any higher. Being ranked over former All-Stars, many still in their prime (including Lopez and Randolph, who were All-Stars last season), is very nice for the now-24 year old Ibaka. It would seem to indicate that an All-Star birth could be due Ibaka's way soon, and he could easily leap Garnett and Chandler when these rankings come out again next season.
Of course, Ibaka does have a ways to go. I wrote about his continuing development earlier in the summer, and there's no doubt that Ibaka can still get better. In addition to having to rely on his shots being created for him as Golliver pointed out, he also needs to improve his defensive positioning and rotations. However, it's nice to see an already talented up-and-comer rewarded for where he is already. An incredible shot-blocker, a quality tertiary scorer and a strong offensive rebounder, Ibaka has rightfully earned his high ranking among some of the NBA's more established stars.
Up next for the Thunder are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. We can probably all guess where Durant will be ranked, but Westbrook could be a bit more interesting. A top-10 ranking seems likely (though maybe not entirely certain), but could a top-5 ranking be in the cards as well? We'll see eventually.
(Happy birthday, Serge!)