Hard Work Puts Ibaka in Spotlight

LOS ANGELES – Dressed and ready to go, Serge Ibaka didn’t leave the visitor’s locker room inside the STAPLES Center, let alone his dressing stall, without a little attention.

A handful of reporters had gathered around him armed with cameras, digital recorders and questions. They wanted to hear his thoughts on the Thunder’s 95-92 Game 2 loss to the L.A. Lakers on Tuesday night, and probe the mind of the 20-year-old rookie who just blocked a career-high seven shots against the defending champs before a nationally televised audience.

The questions came and Ibaka carefully listened before giving his answer in a soft, slow, hushed voice. Teammates nearby peered in his direction, mostly because this sort of thing hasn’t happened very often.

Six months ago, there’s a good chance this wouldn’t have happened. Ibaka was new to both the NBA and playing in a third continent in four years. He didn’t feel comfortable talking in front of cameras. He didn’t speak much English and struggled to find the right words. He preferred to give interviews in either Spanish or French, preferably with an interpreter, whether it was Thabo Sefolosha or a team employee.

But that was six months ago. Ibaka’s English has improved to the point that he can do all of that on his own and with confidence. And that’s the difference in everything we’ve seen from the Congolese native in his rookie season. Everything he does is done with a soaring confidence, whether he’s talking to the media, executing an offensive set, communicating with teammates or stepping up to any challenge thrown his way on the defensive end.

“My confidence comes on defense,” Ibaka said after the game.

The Lakers, who have now seen him six times this season, can probably attest to that as well. Ibaka covered as much ground as anyone else on the floor Tuesday night, challenging shots, fronting the post, helping from the weak side and, most of all, swatting shots.

Ibaka has posted two or more blocks in 30 games this season and he recorded three in two successive possessions in Game 2. He had four blocks by halftime and added two more in the fourth quarter, both on a possession in which the Lakers could have tied the game or taken the lead. Ibaka also finished with six points and five rebounds.

So while Ibaka can speak four languages, he only knows one way to play: non-stop, exerting every last fiber of energy.

Forward Nick Collison has been impressed with Ibaka’s feel for the game ever since the two met last summer. Collison added that Ibaka came here well-coached, thanks in part to the working relationship and constant communication between the Thunder and Rico Manresa, where the Thunder stashed him for a season after making him the No. 24 pick of the 2008 NBA Draft.

“I think because he’s young and athletic, people assume he’s raw, but he’s not,” Collison said. “He has a really good feel for the game. He knows when to come and block shots and offensively, he’s comfortable in the post. It took him half a season to gain some confidence and get comfortable, but I’ve been impressed with him all season.”

Ibaka has given a lot of credit to the Thunder coaching staff, particularly assistant coach Mark Bryant.

When Ibaka arrived in Oklahoma City in June he immediately befriended Bryant, who works with the Thunder big men.

“Coach Bryant somehow has just been able to connect with him, teach him things throughout the year,” Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks said. “And you’re seeing all the work he’s put in with him.”

Ask Bryant what he remembers from his first encounter with Ibaka, and he rattles off a short list: the way his 6-foot-10 frame moved; his athleticism; the release on his jump shot.

“I said this kid is going to be a great power forward in this league,” Bryant said. “And now he’s starting to play center as well, too, which surprised me. I thought he’d have a hard time playing center. But since he’s been here he’s gotten stronger. It’s hard to push this kid around. And his mentality has been, ‘I’m not going to let you push me around.’ ”

We’ve seen that on several occasions this season, a few dustups here and there from Charlotte’s Stephen Jackson earlier this season to Lamar Odom on Tuesday. It’s a mix of confidence and sheer strength. You see it in the weight room or in the late hours he’ll wander back to the practice facility to put in more work on his own or with Bryant.

“Nobody talks about that, but that’s how you get better,” Brooks said.

More than two hours before every game, Ibaka can be found with Bryant and the other forwards and centers going through a pregame ritual of one-on-one post-ups. Each player gets a chance to post up Bryant, who played in two NBA Finals during his 15-year career, and vice versa. They talk trash. There’s no fouls. And they’re drenched in sweat by the end of it all.

And when they’re done, Ibaka and Bryant typically take a seat on an empty bench and talk. For a young player like Ibaka, who’s only begun to learn the nuances of the NBA game and a new language, conversation is the crux of their relationship.

“We talk about anything. I can talk to him any type of way," Bryant said recently. "I can say, ‘hey man, the way you played today, it was straight-up terrible. You have to bring it. When you come off the bench you’ve got to make that difference. You’ve got to make a difference as soon as you step on the court.’ I guess he just respects that, the way I come at him. Being a former player myself, I think I know what it takes to be that player coming off the bench to get your minutes from here to here. You have to change the game. The game has to change when you come in.”

Added Ibaka: ”He just gives me more motivation because, you know, this is my first year. He and my father are like 48, so Mark Bryant is most like him. He feels like my father and he’s just helping me very, very much.”

Bryant insists it’s easy to help because once Ibaka steps on the floor, it’s all business. When Ibaka was asked earlier in the season what it was like to visit some NBA cities for the first time in his life, he made it clear that they were business trips and that he’s there to work; if he wanted to go out and enjoy what a city had to offer, he could do so in the offseason.

“He’s wise beyond his years, especially going through what he was going through in the Congo,” Bryant said. “For him to make it this far on his own, that’s impressive in itself. You know that’s a winner right there. I’m happy for him. I’m impressed with what he’s done. I’m impressed with what he’s doing. And I’m even more impressed with what he might be doing.”

It’s also hard to ignore the passion he displays for everyone to see. The fist pumps. The smiles, scrunched faces, high-fives, roars, fists pounding air after a job well done. It’s raw emotion from what the Thunder considers a player who is quite the opposite.

Ibaka led the Thunder in blocks and was third in rebounding this season. One thing that has never been lost in translation is Ibaka’s role on the team.

Whether you asked him months ago or today, Ibaka recites it like a pledge.

“The coach and my teammates need my energy to rebound, block shots and run the floor,” he said. “That’s my job.”

Contact Chris Silva