In basketball circles, to be deemed a “project” is to carry the weight of a thousand failures. Decision-makers at all levels of play have been captivated by raw, natural athletes and the belief that they can make them whole. Most project players that make it to the NBA, however, are shuffled off in short order. They leave behind a squandered draft pick, dashed hopes, and perhaps some lasting impression of a clumsy, half-formed game.
Serge Ibaka is a definitive exception. The Congolese forward was labeled a project even by vanilla news reports on the night of his drafting in 2008, when Oklahoma City selected him with the No. 24 overall pick. The names of Mouhamed Sene, Johan Petro, and Robert Swift—all drafted by the Thunder née Sonics—were casually invoked in comparison. None of this escaped Ibaka. He was a prideful player even then, one who saw the “project” tag for the apprehension it so clearly conveyed.
“I liked when people called me that,” Ibaka said. “It always gave me motivation. It gave me the hunger to work hard. It gave me something to prove—a challenge. I love challenges.”
The want to prove doubters wrong is a common theme in NBA stories. What set Ibaka apart, even at age 18, was his patience. Ibaka had both an idea of the player he could become and an understanding that he wasn’t yet ready to stake his claim. That self-awareness brought him back to Spain, where he had played professionally the season prior, for a preparatory campaign. Ibaka loathed the thought of being the latest player to attempt a transition from European basketball to the NBA only to be shipped back. To ensure a different fate, he approached his season with Bàsquet Manresa as an opportunity to build up his body and prime his mind for his eventual U.S. arrival.
It served both him and the Thunder—who weren’t quite ready to accommodate Ibaka at the time of his drafting—well. Ibaka began his rookie season in Oklahoma City subsisting on garbage time alone. Within a month he had cracked the rotation of what would be a 50-win team under head coach Scott Brooks. He’s been a fixture ever since, changing shape as the Thunder needed through years of gradual refinement.
"Serge gives us a unique dimension,” Brooks told The Oklahoman in 2009. He could well have echoed that sentiment in every season that followed.
The Ibaka who stormed the Thunder lineup in 2009 was, by his own admission, an energy player. He ran the floor. He blocked shots. He rebounded. This is the currency with which a young, unproven big buys opportunity, and Ibaka had no qualms in making that particular exchange. The core of Ibaka’s game retains that same spirit of accommodation to this day. In praising the evolution of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook over the years, we’ve often left it unsaid that Ibaka has managed to effectively accompany both high-usage superstars at every developmental juncture. No matter the shifting lineups and talents around him, Ibaka’s game is a miracle of fit.
This is primarily due to the extraordinary intersection of two particular skills. The first is rim protection—that coveted ability to protect the most sacred and efficient space on the court. Ibaka showed terrific aptitude in that particular regard from the very start of his NBA career.
“He had a good feel for when to help, when to challenge shots at the rim,” Thunder mainstay Nick Collison said of the rookie Ibaka. “Not a lot of guys have it. There's a lot of guys that they'll draft and they'll say, 'He's long, athletic—he's gonna be a great shot blocker.' But they don't understand how to do it. [Ibaka] always had a good feel for it, and his game has expanded because he's worked so hard.”
Like all shot-blockers, Ibaka had to learn how to apply that feel within the structure of an NBA defense. The reason young bigs can often be duped is that they’re so eager; their gullibility on shot fakes and the like comes from wanting desperately to make a play. Ibaka was no different. He wanted to block shots—so much so that he averaged 5.4 personal fouls per 36 minutes his rookie season and sometimes sacrificed his defensive assignment to chase shot attempts elsewhere.
“My first year, I was [making] a lot of mistakes,” Ibaka said. “I was leaving my guy at the three-point line to try to go block shots.”
Even more important than Ibaka’s gradual climb up the blocked shot leaderboard was his growing understanding of when to stay down. A rim protector trades on intimidation. To leave his feet, then, is to sacrifice a critical advantage. A defender this nimble can do so much more than swat away shot attempts if he keeps his wits about him. Ibaka has learned over time how to be influential over the course of a defensive possession without ever committing to a jump—even when flying around the court as a part of Oklahoma City’s frenetic defense under Brooks. Billy Donovan has dialed back the style of the Thunder’s coverage this season, playing to both the demands of the modern NBA and the growing discretion of his rim protector.
“I’ve been learning when to block shots against who I'm playing,” Ibaka said. “I’m not just going to leave a shooter to go block shots. I make sure that if I go, I'm gonna go [actually] block the shot or I’ve got somebody out there to help me just in case. I’m getting better at just reading the game.”
League-wide trends also factor into Ibaka’s other key, intersectional skill: Reliable long-range shooting. A certain subset of NBA bigs can anchor a defense and another subset can pose a threat at the three-point line. Between the two is but a sliver of overlap, bonded by the distinct ability to make the players around them better.
Ibaka has been an effective pick-and-pop player for years, working off of various Thunder ball-handlers (Westbrook first and foremost) to set up for catches around the elbow. That kind of spacing helped to facilitate an elite offense wherein Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden had the clearance to drive at will. The same principles apply now through even more favorable geometry; given that Ibaka is a reliable and willing three-point shooter, opponents are forced to make even longer recoveries (or might be deterred from making any recovery at all) when scrambling from one option to the next. The triangulation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka puts every defense in a bind. Containing one option almost necessarily involves freeing up another.
“I thought it would be easier for me and for my team if I could stray out [to the three-point line] a little bit sometimes,” Ibaka said. “I can give Russell and Kevin the space to play their game. It helps me and it helps the team, too.”
The team angle Ibaka describes is more than just a quaint thought. There is a legitimate selflessness to the way he operates beyond the arc, both in the restraint he shows against good contests and his willingness to wait on the perimeter as his teammates initiate. This is a Bosh-ian quality that few players of Ibaka’s skill level share; it takes a special teammate to commit to spot shooting, screening, cutting, running the floor in transition, rebounding, and defending hard without having much creative control. That Ibaka embraces his role so completely positions him for success both with this Thunder team, specifically, and within the broader style of contemporary NBA basketball.
“He's really a unique guy and a really, really valuable guy with the way the game's played now,” Collison said. “You don't have to take him out when teams go small. He can still change shots at the rim and then offensively, he's still a threat as a shooter. I think a guy like that—that when teams try to play small or big he an be effective either way—is really valuable.”
All that’s really missing from Ibaka’s game is the ability to work as a downhill player. Hit a rolling Ibaka within range of the hoop and he can beat a rotating defender to the rim. Hit him with a pass a bit higher on the floor, however, and he’ll likely settle for a midrange jumper. Most of the Thunder’s pick-and-rolls come to this kind of direct endpoint. That can be effective in its own right, but the fact that all of the dynamism in the sequence rests with the ball handler limits Oklahoma City’s options.
Ibaka confesses that putting the ball on the floor is a weakness in his game—one he’s trying to address as best he can. Thunder coaches work with him to sharpen his ability to make decisions on the move. You’ll occasionally see a rolling Ibaka make a slick dump pass to the other Thunder big, though he’s also liable to miss those openings if he's already decided to line up a jumper.
When Ibaka does have to dribble, he's prone to taking a bounce or two before turning his back to the basket at the first sign of trouble, using the post-up as a defense mechanism. His righty hook is decent enough that those sequences can work out just fine, though in them Ibaka creates a stylistic separation from some of the NBA’s more fluid roll men.
Oklahoma City approaches those limitations by keeping Ibaka’s reads as simple as possible. Let Westbrook and Durant make the hard play first to set up Ibaka, who isn’t much of a natural passer, for the less complicated choice. Those two are such stellar creators (and Ibaka is so excellent from mid-range) that they turn a linear pick-and-roll into the foundation of the NBA’s second-best offense, trailing only Golden State. All that the Thunder do is destined to be compared to the Warriors. Ibaka, though, can operate as a different style of roll man from his Golden State counterpart while still facilitating high efficiency.
“He's a different player than Draymond Green,” Donovan said. “Draymond Green gets it [in the middle] and he's putting the ball on the floor. He's attacking. Serge, I don't think is that kind of player. Serge is the one where when you throw it to him, it's pretty simple. If he's clear, he needs to take that shot because he's a terrific midrange jumpshooter. When he's open like that, he needs to take it.”
Donovan notes that if defenses take Ibaka’s jumper away, his next progression is to quickly scan for a teammate under the basket or stationed on the weak side.
“One of those two things has gotta be open,” Donovan said. “If they're putting two guys on a pick-and-roll and the ball comes to him in the pocket or the elbow area and he doesn't have a shot, either the guy at the basket is going to be open or he needs to get the ball reversed. [We're] just trying to keep it simple and he's done a pretty good job.”
All of this speaks, as well, to a player who has molded his game for compatibility with Westbrook. When Ibaka screens, he flares out to the elbow or the wing to clear Westbrook’s runway. He catches the ball on his heels because Westbrook has almost certainly forced the defense to collapse inside; an “attack,” as Donovan put it, might be redundant in that context. Their spatial interplay is almost the inverse of Green’s with Stephen Curry, who comes off of a pick largely looking to shoot or stretch out the defense laterally. Green often balances the play by making a straight-line drive to the rim and whipping the ball across the floor as needed. Both are making use of open space—they’re merely dealing with qualitatively different open spaces.
Tangled in all of this are two converging facts: 1) The modern NBA game has made Ibaka a more valuable player, and; 2) The modern NBA game has made almost every aspect of Ibaka’s job more difficult than ever. Not only does Ibaka need to pop out and hit jumpers, he must also make quick reads against fast-recovering defenses. Not only does he need to be able to handle switches and defend in space, Ibaka must also be his team’s primary rim protector. The demands on bigs of his type and caliber are extensive. That he can satisfy them, still, puts Ibaka in rare, outstanding company.