Outlining Serge Ibaka's NBA career, and what he can bring to the table for the Toronto Raptors in the coming season.
Serge Ibaka the early years
Brazzaville, Congo, 1989, the battlegrounds of the Great African War. By the time the country came to peace (almost 15 years later), the fighting was responsible for 5.4 million deaths. The most due to armed conflict since World War II.
Amidst the brutality and chaoticness of the war, a child was born; the third-youngest of an 18 sibling family: Serge Ibaka. His mother suffered an untimely death, and his father became a prisoner of war during Serge's childhood. Both his parents played basketball at an international level, and Serge harvested those talents to a high degree. Scouts took a quick notice of Ibaka's immense basketball potential, and Serge was able to find his escape out of his war-torn homeland. When Serge became a teenager, he fled to Spain with his sights set on Professional Basketball.
Ibaka played in Spain for two years under two Spanish clubs; CB L’Hospitalet and Basquet Manresa. His athleticism and motor shined in Spain, and North American scouts kept a keen eye on him. The Seattle Supersonics took him in 2008 with the 24th pick. Serge was the first Congolese player ever to be selected in the NBA draft.
"Athletically he's off the charts—there's no telling how good he can be" - Anonymous NBA scout.
The Supersonics became the Thunder just six days after the draft, and they decided to keep Serge in Spain for three more years. Following this agreement, Serge only played one out of his three contracted seasons in Spain, as the Thunder bought out his contract and brought him over on a two-year deal, with two-year options.
Oklahoma City rise and fall
Ibaka thrived in the newly located Oklahoma City. He quickly carved out a spot in the NBA and cemented a starting role within the Thunder. In just his 4th season, Ibaka put up 13 points and eight rebounds with three blocks per game. He elevated to 15 points and nine rebounds the next year. Ibaka served as the motor that kept the Thunder running as Westbrook, Durant and then 6th-man Harden relentlessly overwhelmed opponents with offensive barrages.
As we all know, the would-be dynasty of OKC quickly fell apart. Harden traded Houston and is now a borderline top-five NBA player, Ibaka shipped to Orlando, and Durant - a top-three NBA player, joined the Golden State Warriors, who were fresh off of the greatest regular season of all-time.
Ibaka seems to be the forgotten man of the quartet. As the other three have gone on to be top-10 NBA players, Serge has become an afterthought when discussing OKC's implosion.
In the years since the team disbanded, Serge's NBA career has regressed. Serge earned three straight NBA 1st Team All-Defense awards, from 2012 to 2014. Last year, he only amassed one vote, and that was for a spot on the 2nd team. His blocks per game have dropped from a dominant 3.7 to 1.6 last season. For reference, Rudy Gobert has a firm hold as the premier shot blocker at 2.6 bpg. The 1.6 bpg is still good enough to round out the top 10 in blocks per game, but long gone are the days of Serge Ibaka dominating the NBA with his unbelievable 3.7. Or are they?
Even though Serge has suffered supremely lowered BPG numbers, we can still admit that he is a great rim protector. His timing, length, and athleticism are still what caused scouts to salivate when he was a Congolese teenager playing in Spain. His presence alone will make opponents think twice before floating one up in the paint, and he has no fear contesting any shot attempt.
Sadly, however, on top of the lowered blocks per game, almost every meaningful stat has taken a plunge since the end of the 2014-2015 season, where he missed the last third of the regular season due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Since then, from a numbers perspective, he has never been the same. Ibaka proceeded to finish his last season in OKC with a 12.6 points, five rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game.
Toronto gets Ibaka
The following summer, he was shipped to the Magic for Oladipo, Ilyasova, and Sabonis. A week or so before the deadline, he moved to the Raptors for Terrence Ross and a late first rounder, which they used on Anžejs Pasecniks.
Now, Ibaka slots into a starting five that (most likely) will consist of:
CJ Miles or Norman Powell
Going forward, the upside of Ibaka is his shooting. His shooting splits have been rising rapidly since his raw-self entered the NBA. I don’t believe Serge to be a natural scorer, but his ability to stretch the defense with his near 40% shooting from behind the arc (39.8% with Toronto), on 4.5 attempts per game is beneficial and is equally a vital weapon to a potent offense. Amidst the rapidity of his decline since his time in OKC, his shooting is the one thing that has been his bright spot.
For the Raptors fanbase, there is not much that we would rather see, than have Serge evolve into perhaps his final form: a combination of his rim-protecting, shot-blocking self from OKC, and his exterior touch that he's developed over the past few years. Imagine having this Ibaka next year: a three blocks-per-game rim-protector who puts up about 15/9 on 40% shooting from 3.
Perhaps this is that situation for Serge? Much like the system of OKC, Serge could be the interior, rim-running motor that keeps the Raptors chugging? As Lowry and DeRozan continue to bring their offensive prowess and effectiveness to the Raptors attack, Serge could go back to focusing on what made him so effective in the first place. It will be interesting to see how he performs with an entire offseason under his belt, and I'm intrigued to see how he will perhaps take the Raptors core to the next level."
Serge will be 28 this season, a little over ten years since he escaped from the Congo. If he can reach another level this season, Ibaka could be the much-needed lift that the Raptors need to take them to that next step, and compete for a chance to be in the NBA Finals. All we can do now is wait and see.