When the Thunder signed Serge Ibaka to a 4-year, $49 million dollar deal last summer, they locked up another piece of their young core at a fair price. The young shot blocking power forward had emerged has one of the league’s most promising young big men, and the Thunder projected him as an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidate for years to come.
By making this decision, the Thunder also gave off the perception that they had also chosen Serge Ibaka over James Harden. Whether they wanted that to be the case or not, it became the reality of the signing just a few months later when Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets. In that moment, Serge Ibaka inevitably moved from promising young big man to a player with some hefty expectations.
So far, so good for Ibaka. Last season he set career highs in almost every major offensive category. One of the biggest improvements was his 57.5 percent field goal percentage, which came along with a career high in both field goal attempts and three point attempts.
With his ever improving offensive game, I’m now looking for Serge Ibaka to become the Thunder’s third leading scorer this season. He seems to be getting a free pass in terms of stepping up the scoring, as most of the focus has been on the loss of Kevin Martin, along with Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb stepping up and becoming scoring options off the bench. I’m not looking for either of them to become the Thunder’s third best offensive option this season, however.
Although he didn’t perform particularly well in the playoffs in this role, I have faith in Serge Ibaka stepping it up with some fair warning and time to prepare. He has steadily improved throughout his career, which leads me to believe he is ready to step into a bigger scoring role.
Another step in Serge Ibaka’s development is to become a true impact defender. He is a very good defender, but he has not yet become the player that anchors a defense and drastically impacts the performance of his team. The Thunder’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) with him on the court was a solid 99.0 last season, but it only went up to 99.5 when he stepped off the court. In other words, the Thunder were a solid defensive team regardless, finishing the regular season with a team defensive rating of 99.2, good for third in the league.
The top big men defenders in the league tend to have a much bigger impact on their team’s overall performance. The Celtics allowed only 96.2 points per 100 possessions when Kevin Garnett was on the floor, and they dropped to 104.6 when he was off. Memphis’ Marc Gasol units had a similar gap, as they had a defensive rating of 95.4 when he was on the court and a 102.2 when he wasn’t. He was named Defensive Player of the Year because of his performance.
This is what is going to be expected of Serge Ibaka as time goes on. He will need to become an impact defender eventually, but that isn’t exactly something that is expected from your average 23 year old. The thing is, Serge Ibaka isn’t your average 23 year old.
No one is going to say anything negative about Serge Ibaka if he only improves slightly this offseason. He is a young player with minimal basketball experience. But don’t be stunned when he steps up and exceeds expectations.
If Serge Ibaka can make the appropriate strides in his own game, along with his increased role on the team, I won’t be surprised when he is named Most Improved Player or Defensive Player of the Year after the season.