Full Name: Serge Jonas Ibaka Ngobila
Nickname: Stateside: "Iblocka" or "Serge Protector". In his homeland: "Yao Ming".
Contract Status: Signed through 2016-17 at $12.35MM annually.
Interesting Factoid: So many. His back story ranks among the league's most interesting and inspiring, and Grantland released a documentary about his life earlier this year ("Son of the Congo"). He speaks four languages, dates B minus-list singer Keri Hilson, and has a younger brother (Igor!) set to play for Oklahoma State next season. He’s considered a "fake tough guy" by many players around the league, but he was considered a "big black angel" by a wrecked bike rider after coming to his aid.
- Played on the Republic of Congo's national team as a teen
- Played for French and Spanish pro teams at age 17 & 18
- Drafted 24th by the Supersonics in the 2008 draft
- Played one more year in Spain, and came to the NBA in 2009--after the Sonics had become the Thunder
- Entering his fifth season as the Thunder’s starting power forward, he came into 2014-15 having blocked the most shots for four consecutive years.
Aside from his impressive on-court efforts, OKC’S crumbling defense proved that Ibaka is the Thunder’s defensive anchor when the 25-year-old missed time in the playoffs. Many believe Ibaka was "picked" by OKC over James Harden when he signed his current contract, the same summer negotiations with Harden broke down and the shooting guard was shipped to Houston.
At one point, modest progression was expected from Ibaka. Could he continue to hold down the paint on defense, while finally picking up some post moves to go along with his sweet stroke on offense? Could he make an All-Star Game? Win Defensive Player of the Year? Then Kevin Durant went down, then Russell Westbrook, and the question of whether he could carry the team arose. With such a depleted roster, the Thunder would need Ibaka to shoulder more of the scoring load while doing just as much defensively if they were to survive the nasty run of injuries they endured to open the season.
Regular Season Grade: B-
By most measures, Ibaka took a step back from the season prior. He had a decline in points (14.3), rebounds (7.8), and blocks (2.4) per game. He had career lows in field goal percentage, total rebounding percentage, and win shares per 48 minutes.
The only clear improvements came in free throw shooting (a career high .836) and three-point shooting: he knocked down 77 threes, nearly twice as many he had made total in his career prior to this season. However, all of those threes (he shot .376 from deep) didn't keep him from a drop in PER (16.6) and registering a career low in true shooting percentage (.549). There was widespread criticism of his game, as media and fans alike complained that he was drifting too far away from the paint. He was still playing well, but expecting him to be a creator on offense who could find more opportunities for himself was unreasonable.
It’s unclear how often Serge was at full strength, and the roster around him was virtually never at full strength. He played the fewest games of his career (64) with the worst supporting cast of his career. While he didn’t dominate on defense, his value there was once again highlighted when he missed more time and Enes Kanter looked more like a guy doing the "too slow!" high five trick than a rim protector. And after the trade that brought in Enes Kanter and some other shooters, he took less than half as many threes per game than his season average (1.4 compared with 3.2), a sign that his shot selection was more about a shooting-poor roster than a player falling in love with the three-ball. Among guys who played at least half of the season for OKC, Ibaka was easily the second-best deep threat behind Anthony Morrow.
Most Notable Game/Moment: The 20-20
The Thunder were always supposed to have a 10-game winning streak in them after a slow start, and they came one game away from doing that by racking up 9 out of 10, only dropping the season-killer to the Pelicans on that haunting buzzer beater from Anthony Davis. Ibaka’s best game came during that run, a 21-point, 22-rebound effort that convinced us that both he and the Thunder had finally found their groove in a big win over Dallas.
Also, this posterization of Jason Smith in Russell Westbrook’s return game against the Knicks was noice:
For the new-look Thunder to return as title contenders in 2015-16, Ibaka will need to avoid any further drop in offensive efficiency, and maintain his reputation as a paint monster on D.
Assuming Kanter re-signs, Ibaka’s unlocked floor-spacing abilities from distance could be much more valuable than it seemed during The Struggle of 2014-15. With a healthy Kevin Durant and another (functional) player to stick in the post, Ibaka could help the offense flourish from the arc, even if he’s not shooting all that often. He’ll never be a post-up player, and the calls for him to "get back to his bread and butter" were mostly uninformed—in a pinch, opposing coaches have been unafraid to put small forwards and shooting guards on him in halfcourt defense for years. Still, Russell Westbrook’s immediate chemistry with Kanter in the pick and roll contrasted with Ibaka’s pick and pop propensity—an athlete like him should be better at getting to the rim, and he could stand to get a better feel for both operating in traffic and moving without the ball in those subtle ways that great finishers like Tyson Chandler and Anthony Davis have perfected.
The return of Kanter would also mean that Ibaka needs to be even better on defense to give OKC a shot at legitmate, title-contending play on that end of the floor. In the past, he’s worked off of a smart post defender in Kendrick Perkins and, to a lesser extent, Steven Adams. Kanter is not that, and Ibaka will be cleaning up more mistakes than ever when he shares the court with the Turk.