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Thunder Player Development: Which Issues Occur When Serge Ibaka Struggles Offensively?

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When Serge Ibaka struggles offensively, what type of issues lead into his poor performance? What can he do about them?


We've taken a look at Serge Ibaka's jump-shot, and the way his shooting has developed since Ibaka's debut in the NBA. Ibaka has proved to be an increasingly talented player, without question, and the development of his shooting range is just one component of that development. The 13.2 points and 57.3% field goal percentage he averaged last season were both clear career-highs over his previous numbers.

Let's next take a step back and take in a larger view of Ibaka's offensive game. More specifically, let's examine the ways in which he still struggles, and where Ibaka can trim the fat with continued development over any remaining flaws.

To study Ibaka's offensive game, one must first understand his role on the offensive end for the Thunder. He's not asked to create his own scoring opportunities, and he's not suited to do that anyway. He doesn't have a strong enough post game to score with his back to the basket, nor is he agile enough with the ball in his hands to beat other big men off of the dribble consistently. That's all okay, however, as all Serge Ibaka needs to do is thrive off of his superstar teammates.

Most of Ibaka's scoring is facilitated by Durant and Westbrook. Often, these are situations with Ibaka spotting up in mid-range or behind the three-point line, with Ibaka receiving an open jump-shot when Durant or Westbrook can draw his defender away from him. The pick-and-pop with one of those two players is also an option the Thunder go to often. Jump-shots aside, Ibaka also finds plenty of layups and dunks through being left open when lurking around or cutting towards the rim as well as put-backs on the offensive glass. Playing with Durant and Westbrook feeds into those as well, as they command attention from the defense that frees up Ibaka for open baskets around the rim and better rebounding position.

Because of how much of Ibaka's game relies on his superstar teammates, his scoring from the perimeter comes very consistently. Ibaka has become one of the NBA's most reliable shooters from mid-range, and open shots come regularly for him. So, what type of issues lead to his struggles?

To figure this one out, I went to the video and studied some of his worst offensive games during the season. For our purposes, I'll specifically point out what was, in my opinion, his worst shooting game last season: a December 19th matchup against the Atlanta Hawks. In that game, Ibaka went 2-for-9 to score 4 points.

Like most other games, Ibaka got quality shots. Six of his shots were catch-and-shoot opportunities; two were semi-contested and one was three seconds into the shot clock, but the other three were wide open. He was only able to drill one of them, however–his fifth jumper of the game and his sixth shot overall. The other three shots he took came at the rim, two of them missed shots following an offensive rebound and the lone make being an open layup after a slashing Russell Westbrook drew the attention of the defense.

Watching that game, what I noticed was that Ibaka took an awful lot of jumpers. Granted, some were open looks, but when those jump-shots aren't falling, the smartest thing a player can do is to move in closer. Only one of his first seven shots came in the paint (that one being the made layup); his two misses off of offensive rebounds came at the end of the game.

With other games in which Ibaka struggled, it was more of the same. It usually came down to generally advisable jumpers not falling. Oftentimes, the jumpers outnumbered the shots inside. Juxtapose these games with those Ibaka played well in, and one could see that when he played well, there were typically a much more closer balance of inside and outside shots, with the shots taken at the rim outnumbering the jumpers in many cases.

It's easy to say that Ibaka should simply "take more shots inside." However, it isn't that simple. Ibaka shot well at the rim last season, to the tune of 67.9%, but he isn't exactly a dominating force down low. Because he's athletic, a strong offensive rebounder, and plays with Durant and Westbrook, he gets a lot of easy layups and dunks. At the same time, however, his touch in the paint isn't very refined and when his shot is challenged, he struggles a lot more in making it. The two missed shots in the paint from the game against the Hawks were both contested, versus the open look from Westbrook that he was able to sink.

Because Ibaka can't reliably "get his own," even in the paint, the offensive struggles can be hard to break out of when the jumpers aren't falling. Throw in that good shots outside are easier to find than good shots inside, and suddenly, you see Ibaka settling for jumpers to get back on track. Trying to shoot your way out of a shooting slump from the perimter is hardly a recipe for success, however. Ibaka has relatively good shot selection in that he rarely forces genuinely bad shots, but at the same time, he does have a tendency to settle for a bit too many shots outside even when he's struggling.

What might work for Ibaka? The key is to start in the paint. He can't create his own shots, but when Ibaka and the Thunder can do is to have him cutting towards the basket rather than spotting up or popping for the jumper. If he's left open and the pass is available, go for it. As is, a decent share of his baskets are open scores in the paint as a result of defensive attention being concentrated towards Durant and Westbrook. If Ibaka's struggling with his shot, give him more chances at those open looks at the rim.

If the open shot at the rim isn't there, allow Durant and Westbrook to continue doing their thing and instead give Ibaka the opportunity for an offensive rebound and don't park him outside the 3-point arc. Ibaka averaged a strong 2.8 offensive rebounds, which tied him for 15th in the NBA. Put-back scores after offensive rebounds are often easy scores, and Ibaka is athletic enough to go back up and dunk it. If the defense is still challenging him after the offensive rebound, the onus is on him to simply reset the play by kicking it out instead of throwing up a shot that he'll likely miss, sending him even further into his slump.

Beyond that, there isn't much Ibaka really needs to worry about. The important thing is to not force jump-shots in situations where the more advisable option is just to give the ball back to Durant or Westbrook. There's nothing wrong with taking the open jumper when it's available, even when he's struggling, but taking them in volume and missing is when he really begins to hurt his team.

Ibaka isn't the star of the show offensively, he's just one of the smaller cogs that help Durant and Westbrook operate more smoothly. If he's off, the team can live with him passing up some decent looks at the basket. Ibaka is free to wait the shooting slump out until he can get an easy dunk or layup to get back in the swing of things, because they don't rely on him for primary scoring.

After all, they have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for that.